India, Pakistan Optimistic About Peace Talks

KARACHI – For no clear reason, the atmosphere around the resumption of the long-delayed India-Pakistan peace dialogue is marked by effusive official optimism on either side, and an aura of hope and expectation among both peoples.

The two governments, whose foreign ministers met Wednesday and set a September date for more substantial discussions, have by no means been overwhelmed by popular sentiment. They are as cautious and wary in action as ever.

The latest move toward India-Pakistan talks began in February after a key South Asian summit, and the Sept.5-6 talks will be a follow-through. So far, the two countries have not gone an inch beyond the status quo in place before the eight-month long eyeball-to-eyeball military confrontation of 2002.

But the net gain is that what is called the "Composite Dialogue" has begun, as agreed to by government officers from the rival South Asian countries back in 1997, albeit largely through the good offices of the U.S. government.

The really hopeful factor is that both ruling establishments are under hope-inspiring pressure from foreign governments, mainly U.S. and Chinese, and their respective peoples’ latent desire for peace and friendship. The good news is that both governments are on track and show no sign or desire to revert to their old cold war ways.

India’s suave foreign minister, Natwar Singh, happens to be in Pakistan at present for a ministerial council meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Islamabad.

He has been the main show in town and all other foreign ministers might well complain that the hosts have made the regional VIPs subordinate to what are incidental meetings – on the sidelines – that are largely protocol contacts with the Indians.

Well, the sad truth is that SAARC gains in salience only as a forum that enables Pakistanis and Indians to meet frequently.

It is too early to talk about the prospects in the just-starting dialogue. After all, there are formidable obstacles to agreements on so many – eight to be precise – disputes.

Seven years ago some of these disputes were thought to be amenable to solution easily, if officials from India and Pakistan brought a friendly and rational attitude to bear in negotiations. But time and governmental actions have made some of them near fait accompli for Pakistanis.

Would the two sets of negotiators bring friendly, accommodative and rational minds to bear on the problems on hand? Who can be sure?

The biggest hurdle to amicable understandings on disputed matters is mindsets hammered into shape by the long India-Pakistan cold war, and by vested interests created by 55 years of arms race – more so after both countries went overtly nuclear in 1998.

There are difficult and complex problems such as Kashmir, where time has so hardened positions on either side that they have become a test as well as a promoter of macho nationalisms.

Indians regard their originally de facto sovereignty over all of Kashmir as having become de jure after it was written into the Indian Constitution. Therefore retaining the status quo in Kashmir – which is all about the Kashmir’s famed valley – is now an imperative of India’s increasingly militant nationalism.

Similarly, Pakistan’s military-bureaucratic ruling establishment has made the change in Kashmir’s status a national cause for Pakistanis. However, Pakistan has been broadly hinting for some time that it is prepared to be flexible and may not demand what India fears most.

So far, the Indian stance is selectively flexible, with rigidity marking its attitude on Kashmir and possibly even over minor or consequential change.

Another roadblock results from the presence of nuclear weapons of mass destruction, which has strengthened hardliners to no end in each country. These nuclear weapons of mass destruction have actually become macho symbols of each nationalism.

However, there happens to be a profound but unavowed agreement between India and Pakistan that these weapons are there to stay. On this hangs two separate facts.

First, nuclear weapons of mass destruction create a radical kind of mistrust about the "enemy’s" intentions. Let no one forget that the two opposing nuclear deterrents of India and Pakistan are meant for each other, whatever may be said for public consumption.

No Indian decision-maker can sleep easy so long as Pakistani nuclear weapons, mounted on missiles of suitable range, stand ready to go. Similarly, the presence of Indian nuclear weapons, on missiles of adequate range, will go on constituting a horrible threat for Pakistani decision-makers.

Second, on what officials on both sides have called "security and stability," thinking on both the Indian and Pakistani sides runs parallel in terms of Track II diplomacy.

Thus far, they have reached an agreement on the nuclear issue: let both India and Pakistan keep their nuclear weapons indefinitely. But they should make them safe and ensure that no nuclear weapon is launched by accident, miscalculation, misreading of radars or when unauthorized persons or terrorists put their fingers on the red button. For this a limited détente between rivals is necessary – and this can be fulfilled with confidence-building measures (CBMs) that the U.S. government has been promoting.

The Indian foreign secretary gave a list of CBMs to his Pakistani counterpart in their first meeting in June last year. The Pakistani foreign secretary too gave an elaborate scheme of CBMs, called the Nuclear Restraint Regime.

The question remains: Can the Indian or Pakistani negotiators look at problems with an open rational mind, one moved by a common vision of friendship and cooperation?

One is not referring to the ongoing official-level talks that will lead to foreign ministers’ negotiations on Sept. 5-6. It is in the latter framework that major agreements can result from give and take.

But one augur does seem to be good. These are steps to strengthen the current climate of popular hope and expectations.

Even officials can agree on freer travel through a relaxed – as relaxed as is feasible – visa regime and more cultural exchanges.

Without such all-round relaxation, Indians and Pakistanis cannot reinforce the present welcome atmosphere – without which their political leaders may not be able to resist pressure from their respective hawks against making difficult agreements.