Moving slowly towards peace

India and Pakistan have completed foreign secretary level talks on June 23-24 in Islamabad. Before the talks started, there were no high expectations on both sides of the border. Nevertheless the talks seem to have gone well. The atmospherics were good and cordial. The two foreign secretaries, Pakistan’s Salman Bashir and India’s Nirupama Rao, held a joint press conference on Friday. The joint statement was positive and “both sides reiterated their intention to carry forward the dialogue process in a constructive and purposeful manner”.

After the Mumbai attacks, the dialogue process had been suspended. The ice was broken in Sharm el-Sheikh by the Indian and Pakistani premiers. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was widely criticised after those talks but his response was, “I sincerely believe it is our obligation to keep the channels of communication open.” It is important for India and Pakistan to resolve their longstanding issues bilaterally. War is no longer an option after the nuclear arming of both countries. Of course, as in any peace process, there will be spoilers who will try to create tensions through their actions and utterances. Both India and Pakistan need to realise that they have to cooperate for peace and especially in the struggle against terrorism. In the recently held talks, the most significant Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) were nuclear and conventional, “to discuss implementation and strengthening of existing arrangements and to consider additional measures, which are mutually acceptable, to build trust and confidence and promote peace and security”. The Indo-Pak nuclear equation is far more dangerous than even that of the Cold War. There is very little reaction and/or verification time to ensure mistakes are not made. Despite the history of mistrust between the two sides, for this reason alone there is no escape from continuing the dialogue, no matter what the difficulties in the way of finding solutions to longstanding and intractable problems.

The issue of Kashmir was also discussed. Ms Rao said that India and Pakistan “must do away with the shadow of the gun … because it is only in an atmosphere free of terror and violence that we can discuss the resolution of such a complex issue”. While there may be weight in Ms Rao’s argument, India must also take initiatives to bring the estranged Kashmiris into a dialogue to move towards an internal political settlement, rather than continue to rely on heavy-handed repression alone. The All Parties Hurriyet Conference (APHC) Chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has welcomed the talks and hoped that the Kashmiri leadership will be included in future. There are three parties to this conflict. Therefore without initiating a political dialogue inside Indian Kashmir, a bilateral dialogue process with Pakistan cannot by itself help resolve the impasse. In answer to the Indian assertion that a democratically elected government is in place in Srinagar, the best characterisation of the situation is that there are also some important Kashmiri forces outside the process in a fractured polity.

The Mumbai attacks and Samjhauta Express were also part of the discussions. Mr Bashir said the issue of terrorism needs a “collaborative approach” while Ms Rao assured that the outcome of the Samjhauta investigations would be shared with Pakistan. Another pressing issue was humanitarian concerns. Both sides agreed that humanitarian issues needs to be prioritised. Pakistan helped to get Indian hostages released from Somali pirates recently, which was appreciated by the Indian side, but there are many other prisoners who have been languishing in jails on both sides of the border for long years. Occasionally India and Pakistan release fishermen and other such prisoners in goodwill gestures but they should now devise a method to quickly deal with such prisoners and those of longer standing. Our relationship may go through ups and downs, but humanity on either side should not suffer because of this.

Next month there will be another round of talks between the foreign secretaries for the upcoming foreign ministers’ talks. These are good signs. Hopefully India and Pakistan are moving haltingly and slowly towards peace. It goes without saying that for this, the dialogue process must continue.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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