Towards a breakthrough

Published : Jan 30, 2004 00:00 IST

India and Pakistan could make history by sustaining a dialogue process and normalising mutual relations, but they will have to work hard and patiently at it. Vajpayee and Musharraf will both have to rein in their respective hawks.

THE relaxed mood among Pakistani's officialdom was palpable as we crossed the Wagah border soon after the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit ended. Every day, the Rangers shut the gates on the Pakistani side of the post on the dot at 3-30 p.m. (4 p.m. Indian Standard Time), the precise hour we reached the immigration and customs offices (having been delayed in Lahore). It is a measure of the climate of mutual goodwill that now exists that Pakistani officers rushed us through the formalities and reopened the gates for us though that meant making a departure from the set practice.

What a sea-change from the lurid display of mutual hostility that occurs every evening as moustachioed men of India's Border Security Force (BSF) and the Pakistan Rangers practise their well-rehearsed rooster-walk in an ugly ritual full of machismo.

This small incident is symbolic of the major change under way in India-Pakistan relations since the January 6 meeting between President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, followed by the announcement that the two governments will begin a dialogue as early as February. This is an extraordinary turn in the trajectory of the subcontinent and a historic opportunity for India and Pakistan.

What happened in Islamabad is far more significant than either the Lahore or the Agra Summit. The function of the Lahore meeting was to reassure the world - more sceptically, create the illusion - that the two then-recently nuclearised rivals were not about to go to war; they could ride the bus to peace. The Lahore Summit was preceded by meagre preparation and exploration of how far the two neighbours could go towards confidence-building and normalisation. It only half-attempted an agreement on transparency in matters nuclear, without even putting nuclear restraint on the agenda, barring the continuation of a moratorium on testing. Lahore was quickly undermined through the Kargil intrusion by the Pakistan Army, which was deeply suspicious of the then Nawaz Sharif government.

The Agra Summit failed not because Musharraf did some grandstanding in his breakfast meeting with Editors, nor because Sushma Swaraj played a negative role, but because Home Minister L.K. Advani shot down a joint draft declaration after it was agreed upon. More generally, the two top leaders could not resolve their differences over what constitutes the "core issue" - for Pakistan, Kashmir, and for India, ending "cross-border terrorism". Indian leaders did not feel reassured that Pakistan had called off jehadi infiltration in Kashmir.

The Islamabad meetings between Vajpayee and Musharraf and between Vajpayee and Pakistan Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali were the first talks between Indian and Pakistani leaders in the post-September 11 context and after the Iraq war, which have qualitatively changed power balances as well as relations between the two countries, on the one hand, and the United States, on the other. They were preceded by quiet "back channel" talks spread over seven months, including a meeting reportedly in May in London between India's National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra and Secretary of Pakistan's National Security Council Tariq Aziz. The Id ceasefire was the third offer by Pakistan to cease hostilities.

Looming large behind the talks was the "facilitating" role of the U.S. (and to an extent Britain) and heavy pressure on Musharraf to stop supporting jehadi operations in India, in particular Jammu and Kashmir, and make peace moves to reciprocate Vajpayee's April 18 offer of the "hand of friendship".

Four other factors greatly influenced the processes that culminated in Islamabad. First, in recent months, Pakistan has perceptibly reduced support to militant infiltration from across the Kashmir border - a fact confirmed by Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha. This is part of a larger momentum building up within the Pakistani establishment for ending "the jehadi project" altogether. The ceasefire was only a formal expression of this momentum.

A second factor is the slew of confidence-building measures (CBMs) taken by the two states since October 2003. After initial resistance and some tendentious counter-proposals (for example, United Nations' involvement in immigration procedures for the proposed Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service), Islamabad has acted in good faith and constructively. The resumption of bus, air and train services between the two countries and the unprecedented number of citizen-level exchanges and goodwill visits by parliamentarians and businessmen bear visible testimony to positive attitudes on both sides.

New Delhi set Pakistan yet another test - willingness to sign the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA). Islamabad passed this. The main source of reservations in this regard was not Pakistan, as in the past, but Bangladesh (and to an extent, Nepal).

Third, the two assassination attempts on Musharraf in December 2003 highlighted as never before the internal threat in Pakistan from Islamic extremists, who accuse Musharraf of having "sold out" on the Taliban operation in Afghanistan, and the "freedom struggle" in Kashmir. The fact that one of the assailants was a Kashmiri further underscored the seriousness of the hysterically negative reactions that Musharraf's recent actions and statements against jehadi extremists have provoked, including his Reuters interview about temporarily "setting aside" the plebiscite demand. These hostile reactions, and the assassination bids - they were very, very, close, and involved insider-information leaks on Musharraf's movements - probably strengthened the General's resolve to take on his opponents on the religious Right and his determination to pursue the peace agenda.

Finally, recent disclosures about the transfer of nuclear weapons technology and components from Pakistan to North Korea, Iran and now Libya greatly disturbed non-proliferation advocates in Washington and other Western capitals. They also provided additional leverage to the U.S. in demanding that Musharraf show greater moderation in respect of his nuclear policy and relations with India, but crack down on Islamist hardliners. It bears recalling that the U.S. offered a $3 billion aid package to Musharraf last June, making it conditional upon "cooperation" in the "war on terrorism", improved relations with India, and greater internal democratisation.

The importance the U.S. establishment attaches to ending Pakistan's support to Islamist extremism and to improved relations with India is highlighted by New Priorities in South Asia - U.S. Policy towards India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, a recent report of a joint task force of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society in the U.S.

ALL these ingredients went into the Vajpayee-Musharraf meeting. To put it bluntly, India has gained more from the Islamabad process than Pakistan. In the joint statement, Musharraf formally committed himself not to "permit any territory under Pakistan's control to be used to support terrorism in any manner". The statement makes no reference to Pakistan's concern about India's Kashmir policy; it only talks of "composite dialogue". We should be happy with this and not crow about it - the way Bharatiya Janata Party president M. Venkaiah Naidu did in Hyderabad on January 11 through his discordant note about fighting "cross-border terrorism".

We Indians have a major stake in maintaining and strengthening the gains from the peace process. That is the best way to ensure that the momentum to end the "jehadi project" will be sustained. Pakistan launched this project, involving the conscious use of violence by ideologically charged Islamists in the early 1980s in Afghanistan and in 1989-90 in Indian Kashmir. It has wreaked havoc not just in Afghanistan via the Taliban, but eventually in Pakistan itself.

In the long run, India's interest lies in a moderate, modern and politically stable Pakistan, which is friendly to its neighbours. The potential peace dividend is tremendous in every conceivable way. There is no reason why India and Pakistan should not return to the situation prevalent in the 1950s when half of Pakistan's exports went to India and 32 per cent of its imports came from India. (The proportions today are both under one per cent.) Again, with a peaceful boarder, both states can reduce their troop deployment by 200,000 or more and their military spending by 20 to 30 per cent from the current Rs.100,000 crores or so.

Politically too, peace between them will help break the toxic link between communalism and mutual hostility. Phobias and hatred towards each other are crucial to stoking religion-based politics in India as well as Pakistan.

It will take a great deal of effort, and not a little imagination, to sustain the peace process and make it yield positive results until a "take-off" stage or durable reconciliation is reached. We must appreciate Musharraf's domestic constraints. He is under attack both from the religious Right and from conservative nationalists for having abandoned the one-decade-long Kashmir policy.

The bulk of the Pakistani establishment appears to be with him. But a significant chunk is probably not. Musharraf can convince or at least silence his critics only if he can show real gains from the dialogue with India in various areas - above all, Kashmir. Kashmir is at least as thorny an issue as the Irish question and it would be unrealistic to expect that a solution acceptable to India, Pakistan and the Kashmiri people can be found quickly. It could take years of painstaking negotiations, probably more complex than those in progress with China. The crucial question is how to sustain the positive momentum in the interim and prevent the dialogue process from becoming a hostage to domestic political pressures or other factors.

This will need both defensive and proactive measures. The defensive measures must insulate the dialogue from the instinctive hypernationalism and the anti-Pakistan-anti-Muslim mindset of the Sangh Parivar. The test of Vajpayee's leadership will come when the Lok Sabha elections are announced. If he has any practical sense, he should tick the Hindu Right off and put a lid on the government's and the BJP's anti-Pakistan propaganda. He must not let the dialogue slacken after the elections, during which the BJP may cite the peace process to neutralise Muslim suspicions and to win moderate votes in general.

The hard part is proactive measures. They must include new CBMs to facilitate people-to-people contacts, such as surface transport links between Munabao and Kokhrapar, and between Gujarat's Banaskantha district and Sindh and the Karachi-Mumbai ferry. Other important CBMs are visa relaxation (abolition of the general requirement of reporting to the police, and issue of multiple-entry, non-city-specific visas), opening up of more border posts, promotion of cultural activities, tourism, scientific and technological cooperation, academic conferences and exchange visits and free circulation of periodicals and journals.

Equally important are military CBMs, including nuclear risk-reduction measures, steps to end routine shelling at the Line of Control (LoC), a moratorium on missile test-flights, withdrawal from Siachen, and agreement not to deploy nuclear weapons for a specific period such as one to three years and other restraint measures.

However, these must be some positive moves on Kashmir itself. An imperative is improved treatment of Kashmiris, including Hurriyat leaders who are constantly harassed and are in and out of prison. They all must be treated on a par with Indian citizens. New Delhi must lift and abrogate repressive and preventive detention laws in Jammu and Kashmir, including the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. It must gradually "soften" the Kashmir border and instil confidence among ordinary Pakistanis about India's bona fides.

The most dramatic measure would be a unilateral phased reduction of Indian troops stationed in the Kashmir Valley by, say, 50,000 or 100,000. This can be done without compromising security or losing effectiveness in fighting terrorists.

All these measures, coupled with intensified economic relations and citizen-to-citizen interaction, could produce a major breakthrough and a clean rupture with the sordid past of rivalry and mean-spirited hostility.

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