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INDIA/PAKISTAN: Picking Up The Peace Threads

Analysis by Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI, Oct 16 2008 (IPS) - India and Pakistan are trying to revitalise their mutual dialogue and pick up the threads of the peace process they launched in early 2004. This may be the last such effort before the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh demits office by May next, if not sooner.

At least three positive signals have emerged from the recent discussions between and statements of top-level officials of the two countries, which hold out the hope that their mutual dialogue could produce results in the very near future.

First, the maiden meeting between Pakistan’s newly installed President Asif Ali Zardari and Singh in New York, three weeks ago on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, was remarkably successful in raising the level of mutual confidence.

In their joint statement, the two agreed that “the forces that have tried to derail the peace process must be defeated and this would allow continuation and deepening of a constructive dialogue for the peaceful resolution and satisfactory settlement of all bilateral issues”.

Zardari not only reiterated Pakistan’s commitment not to allow its soil to be used for terrorist attacks in India, but also agreed to “verifiably” prevent acts of terrorism.

Singh and Zardari also pledged to deepen mutual economic relations and cooperate in a broad range of issues.

Most important, they agreed to resume trade across the land borders between the two Punjabs and between Sindh in Pakistan, and Rajasthan and Gujarat in India, after a gap of 43 years. Official trade between the two countries has ‘doubled’ over two years. And it is expected again to double this year to nearly four billion US dollars.

Besides boosting commerce further, the resumption of overland trade has the potential to reintegrate these regions after decades.

A second major signal emanated from Zardari’s interview to The Wall Street Journal, published on Oct. 6. In the interview, Zardari said something no other Pakistani ruler has ever mustered the courage to say. He declared that India is no longer his country’s arch-enemy. Indeed, he said, “India has never been a threat to Pakistan”.

“This is a proposition that a majority in the Pakistani establishment, including many supporters of the peace process with India, will vehemently reject”, says Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a professor at the School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University here.

“Like many in the Indian establishment who view Pakistan through a prism of adversity, Pakistani conservatives have long seen India in inimical terms,’’ said Chenoy. For them, systemic hostility towards India is part of the very identity of the Pakistani state and its reason for existence. Zardari has challenged them head-on.”

Zardari’s extraordinary statement shows an intent to terminate Pakistan’s all-encompassing six decades-long strategic hostility with India, which has taken the form of a continuous hot-cold war for most of this period, including three-and-a-half bloody military engagements (counting the 1999 Kargil conflict).

Zardari also described Kashmir’s militant separatists as “terrorists”. (The terrorist” description has since been retracted by Pakistan’s information minister Sherry Rehman, but the rest of the statement stands.) He also said he has no objection to India’s nuclear deal with the U.S. – so long as Pakistan is treated “at par”: “Why should we begrudge the largest democracy in the world getting friendly with one of the oldest democracies in the world?”

“Few Pakistani leaders use such complimentary language about India”, says Chenoy. “More, Zardari makes Pakistan’s ‘economic survival’ conditional upon better ties and trade with India, saying there is no other strategy ‘for nations like us’. This too is remarkable for acknowledging India’s emergence as a major economic power, vis-à-vis which Pakistan would play a naturally asymmetrical yet cooperative role.”

Within Zardari’s vision, economic relations with India would be the key to Pakistan’s prosperity. Its cement factories would cater to India’s huge infrastructure needs, its textile mills would produce cloth to feed India’s demand, and Pakistani ports would help India relieve congestion at its own ports.

India cautiously welcomed Zardari’s statement. “We were deliberately cautious because we did not want Zardari to be exposed to domestic flak on the ground that he is too soft on India,” a senior Indian diplomat told IPS on condition of anonymity.

“One reason why Zardari was so upbeat or exuberant,” the diplomat added, “is that he is trying to get a 10 billion dollar capital infusion into Pakistan’s economy, for which he needs to appear friendly to India. But that cannot be the sole reason. He is evidently thinking along unconventional lines and may want to begin a new relationship with India.”

As this writer noted during a recent visit to Pakistan and through discussions with many Pakistani analysts, Zardari’s statement reflects, even if obliquely, two views that have gained currency in that country.

First, there’s strong across-the-board support for the peace process with India, and policymakers believe Pakistan cannot handle tensions along its Eastern border with India when its Western border is burning under the combined impact of a pro-Taliban insurgency and the U.S.- led war in Afghanistan, which is spilling over into its restive tribal areas.

Second, perceptive Pakistanis believe their country has a great stake in intensified economic relations with India.

Zardari’s interview was followed by a visit to New Delhi by Pakistan’s newly appointed National Security Adviser Mahmud Ali Durrani, who met top Indian officials earlier this week, including his counterpart M.K. Narayanan. This sent out the third positive signal.

Although the main focus of Durrani’s meetings was meant to be a discussion of the “joint anti-terrorism mechanism” that India and Pakistan recently set up, the two sets of officials addressed a range of issues “frankly but cordially”.

These included Sir Creek in the West and Siachen in the high Himalayas, where they have territorial disputes, allegations of support to terrorism against each other, water sharing and trade.

They also discussed their different positions on Afghanistan, where the Indian embassy in Kabul suffered a major bombing in July, in which, India alleges, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency was involved. Pakistan denies the involvement.

They also discussed the thorny issue of Kashmir. “By all available indications, they seem to have agreed to put Kashmir on the backburner, while seeking solutions to other contentious issues and a general improvement in relations,” says Tapan Bose, of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, which has been active in promoting mutual reconciliation and people-to-people dialogue since 1994.

“This is a major development,” adds Bose, “which holds out a great deal of hope.”

Perhaps the greatest source of hope lay in the remarks made by Narayanan and Durrani at a dinner in honour of the latter on Oct 14. Narayanan, a self-confessed hawk, said he had a major change of heart.

Narayanan said he had been sceptical about Manmohan Singh’s view that India shares a common destiny with Pakistan, but after his latest talks with Durrani he felt compelled to revise his view: “I told the Prime Minister… that I agree…that we share a common destiny with Pakistan.”

Equally important, the two national security advisers said they agreed that the main problems between India and Pakistan are “internal rather than external”. To that extent, both countries must address their domestic social fault-lines, if possible, “with each other’s help”.

“I have not heard such language before,” says Bose, “and that too from a hard-boiled sceptic or cynic.”

India and Pakistan still have a lot of ground to cover. But if they succeed in demarcating the maritime boundary at Sir Creek soon and make progress on other issues, closer trade relations and greater faith in a non-adversarial relationship can take them some distance.

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