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Promising talks between India and Pakistan

Publication Date : 06-07-2012


Perhaps it is a reflection of the personalities of the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan, but the meeting between the two sides was held without big promises made (planted through “source-based” stories in the media), high expectations bandied about or, for that matter, acrimony and hostility. Not too much play was given to the imponderables as India’s Ranjan Mathai and Pakistan’s Jalil Abbas Jilani sat down with their teams to focus soberly and seriously on the issues at hand.

The result was thus more promising than it has been for a while. The joint statement issued by the foreign secretaries has actually taken relations forward in a constructive manner, and if the modest promises are kept, it could mark the start of a better phase in the tenuous relation between India and Pakistan. Little or no effort was made by either side to score the usual brownie points, either through conscious choice of words or self-congratulatory conferences. In fact, the joint statement is drafted in clear language, leaving little room for “source-based” interpretations.

This time, what marked the breakthrough was not what could be achieved in concrete terms, but the decision to keep the terminology sober, and to tackle the thorny issues of terrorism and Jammu and Kashmir in a language that inspires confidence but does not accentuate distrust.

The foreign secretaries recognised that both India and Pakistan were threatened by terrorism, and “reaffirmed the strong commitment of the two countries to fight and eliminate terrorism in an effective and comprehensive manner so as to eliminate the scourge in all its forms and manifestations.”

This is a major step forward, as one must remember that eventually it is not media headlines, but joint statements that form the basis of bilateral discussions between governments. And, in this case, New Delhi has not only taken the extra step forward to accept Pakistan’s longstanding claim of being a victim of terrorism as well, but has also “reaffirmed” its commitment to fight terrorism at all levels.

This is a major concession by India, and could well lead to the next step of joint cooperation between the two neighbours in tackling terrorism. The governments had agreed a while ago to set up a joint terror mechanism, but given the outcry in India, the proposal had been shelved.

The wording of this joint statement seems to suggest that the project could be revived with the foreign secretaries making common cause of the “scourge” that has killed hundreds in India and Pakistan.

Jammu and Kashmir apparently led to a “comprehensive exchange of views” with the foreign secretaries agreeing to continue discussions on it.

Clearly, here Pakistan did not indulge in histrionics with both sides committing themselves to “finding a peaceful solution by narrowing divergences and building convergences.” Pakistan’s foreign secretary did raise the usual hackles by meeting Kashmiri separatist leaders, but then, this has become a practice what with the Indian government unfailingly looking the other way every time.

After all, the bonhomie sensationalised by the media could not have been shared without the concurrence of New Delhi, and clearly, there is an understanding to allow these meetings to continue without interruption. After all, little is said and discussed at these meetings that our Intelligence agencies are not aware of.

The understanding reached on the nuclear and conventional confidence-building measures (CBMs) is significant--both sides decided to hold separate meetings of expert groups to discuss how to implement and strengthen existing CBMs. The fact that the foreign secretaries had committed themselves to fixing dates for the proposed meetings shows a certain welcome seriousness.

There were the usual decisions to encourage sports and media contacts, to relax the visa regime, to promote parliamentary exchanges and to stop hostile propaganda. These might not seem as important as terrorism but are imperative to create an atmosphere conducive to resolving the so-called bigger issues. If India and Pakistan are to move ahead, they have to bring an end to the hostile propaganda that directed at each other and fed to the media by governments through “official sources”.

Stereotypes have to be challenged, people-to-people contacts have to be increased, and CBMs fast tracked. The two foreign secretaries seems serious about strengthening existing cross-LoC CBMs as the joint statement records the decision to hold a meeting of the working group on this on July 19, 2012 in Islamabad. These CBMs though specified, are in disarray and hopefully, the working group’s suggestions to streamline these will be implemented speedily by both India and Pakistan.

The path to peace has been torturous, often insurmountable, for India and Pakistan. However, both have to understand that peace is not just a commitment but an ideology and that they need to build an unshakeable and unflinching constituency for this. This cannot be done through hostility and acrimony, but by constructive dialogue and a certain trust and confidence that only the political process can deepen.

Civil society can act as a major pressure group, but it is for governments to muster the political will to make peace happen. Those who believe that an unstable Pakistan is in India’s interest, must think again. A stable and peaceful neighbour is essential for the healthy growth of a country, and India cannot develop to her full potential with unrest and violence consuming Pakistan.

All in all, this round of talks between the foreign secretaries has been promising and at least for the moment, seems to have brought both India and Pakistan a little closer. If the joint statement is not merely rhetorical, but predicated on political will, the future of South Asian peace does not look as bleak as it had around the same time last year.

The writer is  a consulting editor of The Statesman


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