Cautious optimism

Print edition : July 30, 2004

Pakistan's approach to the bilateral talks seems to be defined more by a concern to sustain the momentum of the peace process than any expectations of a major breakthrough.

in Islamabad

External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh with Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, his Pakistani counterpart, in Jakarta on July 2.-ZAINAL ABD HALIM/REUTERS

IT is perhaps a unique characteristic of India-Pakistan relations that the two countries tend to travel backwards in time on their differences. The just concluded Foreign Secretary-level talks in New Delhi between the two sides once again demonstrated this.

The much-talked-about January 6 joint press statement, after the dialogue between Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in Islamabad, was all about the resumption of the 1998 composite dialogue process interrupted in the aftermath of the Kargil War. Of course, it contained some significant references to the commitment of Pakistan to create an atmosphere free from terrorism.

The June 28 joint statement, issued at the end of the Foreign Secretary-level talks in New Delhi, has almost taken the two sides to the time when it all began - 1948. The reference to the United Nations Charter and their commitment to them might mean nothing in the real sense but does provide the scope for Pakistan to return to the rhetoric centring around the 1948 U.N. resolution on Kashmir.

India too has extracted its pound of flesh by incorporating a categorical assertion in the statement on the importance of the 1972 Simla Agreement and the determination of both sides to implement it in letter and spirit.

Of course, there is a quid pro quo in the formulation. But do they mean anything from the point of view of Pakistan? Not really.

This was evident a week later in the remarks made by President Pervez Musharraf to visiting Senators of the Republican Party from the United States. "The peace process with India could suffer a setback if there was no progress on Kashmir," he told them. In other words, Musharraf does not see the dialogue process as being on a firm course.

From Pakistan's point of view, the June 27-28 talks were essentially about ensuring the sustenance of the peace process initiated by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, after the change of government in New Delhi. Some of the statements attributed to External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh on the peace initiative had caused anxiety in the Pakistani establishment.

It was not a coincidence that the first face-to-face encounter between Natwar Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri in Qingdao, China, on the sidelines of a regional conference, was dominated by this theme. There was a sigh of relief when Natwar Singh reassured Kasuri that India remained committed to the path of dialogue to solve all bilateral issues.

There is no euphoria in Pakistan over the latest joint statement. Within hours after the conclusion of the talks, Pakistan Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokhar cautioned against any hype and high expectations. "I saw and found them serious, committed and determined to move forward on a composite dialogue" was all that he was willing to tell journalists.

Part of the reason for the guarded optimism of the Pakistani establishment and civil society could be attributed to prejudices against the Congress and the successive governments led by it. Popular perception in Pakistan, reinforced by the establishment, is that the Congress is at the root of all the problems between India and Pakistan. So it could not be expected to be radical in its approach towards the resolution of differences.

At the same time, for a variety of reasons Pakistan does not want the process to be derailed. Faced with serious domestic problems and trouble on the porous border with Afghanistan, Islamabad can ill afford bad relations with India. Forces opposed to cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition on the so-called war against terrorism have mounted a challenge to the authority of the Pakistani establishment, perhaps the most serious witnessed since the dismemberment of the country in 1971.

Changed ground realities in the aftermath of September 11, growing pressure from the international community and the desire of increasingly large sections of society to integrate with the rest of the world have made jehad an unviable foreign policy instrument for Pakistan. So Islamabad not only wants to be seen as engaging, but actually engaging India.

This was the primary motive behind the conciliatory gestures of Pakistan in the just concluded round of talks. Pakistan, like most of the world, did not expect the Bharatiya Janata Party to lose power in the general elections. But once the return of the Congress to power, albeit as the leader of a coalition, was a reality, there was the need to introduce new nuances into the process of engagement.

Perhaps Congress leaders succeeded in convincing the military establishment that it would like to put its own signature on the peace process. Hence the concession from Pakistan on the centrality of the Simla Agreement in defining the relations between the two countries. It must have been a bitter pill, particularly for the Pakistan Army, as the pact is a reminder of its follies that led to the birth of Bangladesh.

Musharraf agreed to the reference in order to keep the process going. Of course, in the process, Pakistan bargained for the inclusion of a reference to the U.N. Charter and purposes. There is little rationale for any reference to the U.N. in a bilateral statement, particularly when both sides are its members. Even in the context of Kashmir, it makes little sense after Musharraf's statement that Pakistan has for the time being set aside the U.N. resolution on plebiscite.

Curiously, Pakistan chose to respond indirectly to criticism made by former External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha that the reference to the U.N. Charter "weakens our approach that all issues between India and Pakistan should be resolved bilaterally and may give an opening to Pakistan to bring in the old U.N. resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir and involve third parties in the negotiations". Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman Masood Khan maintained that the reference to the U.N. Charter had no significance and it was a mere reiteration of commitment to the Charter by the two countries.

Pakistan has reasons to be happy with the outcome of the expert-level talks on confidence building measures (CBMs) on nuclear weapons. At the New Delhi meeting, the Foreign Secretaries approved the measures recommended by the expert-level meeting on the CBMs in New Delhi on June 19-20. They agreed to conclude an agreement on pre-notification of the flight-testing of missiles and authorised the experts to work towards finalising the draft agreement.

Significantly, both sides reaffirmed references in the joint statement to the need to promote a stable environment of peace and security, to recognise the nuclear capabilities of each other as constituting a factor for stability, to work towards strategic stability, and to call for regular meetings among all nuclear powers to discuss issues of mutual concern. It is a matter of great satisfaction for Pakistan to find such support in the neighbourhood, particularly in the light of the Dr. A.Q. Khan scandal and fears of its adverse fall out on the country's nuclear programme.

Besides the symbolism to carry forward the dialogue process, the two sides proposed a comprehensive framework for conventional CBMs aimed at initiating and enhancing communication, coordination and interaction. These would be discussed further. Some of them are contentious for both sides and that is why they chose not to make them public. In response to concrete Kashmir-centric proposals, the Pakistan Foreign Secretary merely said that they would be referred to the "Ministries concerned" for examination before any further discussion.

Pakistan, on its part, did raise the issues of "re-location" of forces from Kashmir (a euphemism for reduction of troops inside the Valley), repeal of "draconian" laws, release of "political prisoners" and improvement of "human rights". Acknowledging the difficulties the Manmohan Singh government could face if these issues are discussed in public, the Pakistani delegation only raised them behind closed doors.

Islamabad also did not appear to be satisfied with the set of proposals made by India to enhance people-to-people contacts between the people of Kashmir on both sides of the divide. So proposals like the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus link, another road link along the Line of Control (LoC), and bus services between Jammu and Sialkot did not get priority attention. Pakistan wants "simultaneous" progress on CBMs and Kashmir.

Besides the pact on the restoration of staff strength at the missions in New Delhi and Islamabad to 110, as it existed before January 1, 2002, there was agreement in principle to re-establish the consulates in Karachi and Mumbai. Although Pakistan has agreed to give up its claim on Jinnah House in Mumbai to locate its consulate, it is doubtful if it would materialise early. After all, earlier in the year Pakistan refused permission to India to open a camp visa office in Karachi. Pakistan has also not been keen on quick progress with regard to the Munnabao-Khokrapar road linking Sindh and Rajasthan and the ferry service between Karachi and Mumbai.

The coming weeks will witness a flurry of activity on the diplomatic front. An important achievement of the New Delhi meeting is that the two Foreign Secretaries agreed that discussions on the remaining six subjects of the composite dialogue - Sir Creek, Siachen, Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project, terrorism and drug trafficking, economic and commercial cooperation, and promotion of friendly exchanges in various fields - would take place between the third week of July and the first half of August.

Later in July, Natwar Singh is expected to visit Islamabad in connection with a meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers. Kasuri has been invited to New Delhi in August, where the two Foreign Ministers are expected to review the progress achieved. No doubt, the calendar is full. However, it would be unrealistic to expect any major breakthrough.

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