NEW DELHI A year after India and Pakistan launched their first serious attempt at a bilateral dialogue after their 1998 nuclear blasts and two major military crises, the prospect of success looks tantalizingly close and yet uphill in the last stretch.
Both Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf will have to struggle hard to overcome long-standing obstacles and achieve tangible results in 2005.
Unlike in February 1999, when former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee rode the bus to Lahore, or in 2001 when he met Musharraf in Agra at an unsuccessful summit, the bilateral discussions this time around have been more structured, systematic and better prepared.
The past aside, public opinion in both countries also favors reconciliation overwhelmingly. The top leaders of the two neighboring countries have also gotten to know each other reasonably closely. And the Pakistani establishment has shed much of its initial prejudice against Manmohan Singh, whose sober style seemed a contrast to Vajpayee’s.
And yet, going by the multiple rounds of talks held at various levels so far, the going will not be easy. All that India and Pakistan have managed to achieve over the past year is to restore communication links, including air, bus, and train services ruptured after a December 2001 terrorist attack on India’s Parliament.
Although they agreed in June to reopen their consulates in Karachi and Mumbai, little progress has been made on this.
Also, there seems to be some stagnation over trade and economic cooperation in particular, proposed energy links through an overland gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan.
It is only in respect of liberal visa regimes and greater freedom for people to travel (by no means without restrictions or limits on the number of cities to be visited) that there has been substantial progress. But even this is reversible.
On the two thorny issues Kashmir and nuclear weapons there has been no forward movement. But the two states have at least agreed to discuss Kashmir for the first time ever.
Yet India and Pakistan still remain stuck without any agreement on what seems to be an important confidence-building measure (CBM), namely the launching of a bus service between Srinagar in Indian Kashmir and Muzafarabad in the Pakistani-controlled part.
Various mutual suspicious and divergent perceptions have been responsible for the slow progress. Pakistan believes India is using CBMs, of which it has proposed over 70, as a substitute for a purposive and earnest discussion of Kashmir.
India believes that Pakistan is dragging its feet on the bus route and on economic cooperation because it wants New Delhi to acknowledge the "centrality" of the Kashmir issue and address it first. India accuses Pakistan of a single-minded obsession with Kashmir.
Policymakers in both countries continue to suspect each other’s sincerity even as regards Siachen, a high-altitude glacier in disputed Kashmir, where India and Pakistan have waged a costly and counterproductive war for two decades.
The absurdity of the Siachen conflict, the world’s highest-altitude war, is that retaining or extending the territory has no strategic value or implications for either India or Pakistan.
Both governments seem hell-bent on blowing up hundreds of millions of dollars a year and losing scores of soldiers, largely to frostbite, rather than reaching a rational settlement or a minimally agreed mutual withdrawal.
"Siachen and other boundary disputes can be successfully and quickly addressed," says Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "But for that, Pakistan must feel reassured that India will put Kashmir on the negotiating table."
The Manmohan Singh government has indeed agreed to discuss the Kashmir "issue" it refuses to call it "dispute" as part of a package of talks on eight subjects. But it is not clear how far it is prepared to go and what its bottom line is.
In a considered statement, Singh recently ruled out any re-drawing of borders and also the further partition of India-Pakistan along religious lines. India would probably be prepared to go to exceptional lengths in granting autonomy to its part of Kashmir and allowing a "soft border" with a similarly autonomous part of Pakistani Kashmir.
On the other hand, Musharraf has urged that various "options" be considered, including treating the old state of Jammu and Kashmir as comprising seven distinct regions and then "demilitarizing" each.
So far, there has been no meeting ground on these ideas, but once formal, and especially back-channel, discussions get going, there could be some progress.
The critical intermediate issue is whether each of the two governments shows the imagination needed to trigger progress in the short run. One test of this will lie on the issue of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus route, and of the identity documents to be carried on it.
Talks on this have not progressed because India would like passengers to have an ordinary national passport, although the visa/residence permit may not be stamped on it. Pakistan, by contrast, would like entirely different identity papers, which are Kashmir-specific.
But if the bus gets going, many proposals for cross-border trade, family meetings, a postal service, and others can come up for discussion. If the bus proposal, made in October 2003, fails, despair and disappointment will follow, affecting the prospect for reconciliation.
Nonetheless, whatever happens on the Kashmir "issue," one thing remains clear India and Pakistan cannot achieve a sustainable, durable peace unless they grapple with the issue of nuclear weapons.
"So long as the nuclear shadow looms over the subcontinent, it will remain a potential site for serious military conflict and a nuclear confrontation," says Karamat Ali of the Pakistan Peace Coalition.
"Kashmir is the most obvious flashpoint for a nuclear catastrophe, but there could be others, too a land war where Indian troops enter the Pakistani Punjab. Besides, a nuclear attack could happen out of accident or without authorization," he told IPS.
India and Pakistan have so far refused to address the nuclear weapons issue seriously by negotiating risk-reduction or restraint measures.
Both the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (India) and Pakistan Peace Coalition have urged the two governments to enter into an important agreement not to deploy nuclear weapons and to keep warheads separated from nuclear-capable missiles. Both peace groups also want New Delhi and Islamabad to negotiate a moratorium on missile test-flights, to last between one to three years.
Sadly, both countries have made little momentum in that direction. But simply wishing away the nuclear problem will not do. If India and Pakistan want real peace, not a cosmetic cessation of hostilities, they will have to grapple with thorny issues.
(Inter Press Service)