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INDIA/PAKISTAN: A Fresh Approach to Peace

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Jul 17 2009 (IPS) - If the leaders of India and Pakistan were looking for out-of-the-box solutions to their long-standing dispute over Kashmir and the related issue of cross-border terrorism, they could hardly have done better than the joint statement they released this week after their meeting at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

After considering the ‘entire gamut of bilateral relations,’ India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Yousaf Raza Gilani, acknowledged on Thursday that terrorism was the main threat to both countries.

But, remarkably, both leaders also agreed on the need to insulate the dialogue process from their ongoing battle against terrorism.

“Action on terrorism should not be linked to the composite dialogue process and these should not be bracketed,’’ the joint statement said.

Even more curiously, while Kashmir did not find mention in the statement – it isn’t clear if it was privately discussed – the issue of Pakistan’s troubled western province of Balochistan was one of the highlights.

Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have often accused India of backing and even arming separatist groups in Balochistan, charges that New Delhi has denied. At Sharm el-Shaikh, Gilani made references to India’s alleged involvement and Singh apparently responded by saying that India had nothing to hide and was prepared to discuss the issue.

Indian analysts say that by conceding to Gilani’s demand of including Balochistan in the statement, Pakistan appeared to have turned the tables on India, a country that has long played the role of a victim of terrorism rather than a perpetrator.

Almost predictably, on his home turf, Singh came under attack in Parliament by the right-wing, opposition Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) for de-linking terrorism from the issue of resuming the composite dialogue process. This process, begun five years ago, was suspended by India as a response to the terrorist attacks on the port city of Mumbai in November 2008 which claimed 180 lives.

“If terrorism is set aside, then how does the dialogue become composite?” Sushma Swaraj, BJP member and deputy opposition leader in the lawmaking lower house, or Lok Sabha, said on Friday.

Singh defended India’s radically new stance by saying that “action on terrorism should not be linked to the composite dialogue process and therefore cannot await other developments.”

India, he explained to parliamentarians, sought engagement with Pakistan as “the only way forward to realise the vision of a stable and prosperous South Asia,” and that his government was ready to “go more than half way, provided Pakistan creates the conditions for a meaningful dialogue.”

Lal Krishna Advani, leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, said that by “de-linking terrorism from composite dialogue the government had capitulated to Pakistan’s demand seven months after the Mumbai attacks.”

Advani then led his party to walkout of the Lok Sabha in protest, boycotting the parliamentary session.

The Communist Party of India -Marxist (CPI-M)’s Sitaram Yechury said the government appeared to be acting under pressure from the United States which had stakes in Pakistan, a frontline state in the war on terror in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Probir Purkayastha, a well-known commentator and peace activist, opines that the statement is symptomatic of India and Pakistan’s growing proximity with the U.S., which appears to be playing the role of a peace broker between the two countries.

“India would like to take the position that it is big enough to talk to Pakistan directly, but whenever [a terrorist attack] happens, it turns to Washington,” he told IPS. As a prelude to her five-day tour of India, starting Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wrote in a column in the Times of India, an Indian daily, that both India and the U.S. should “encourage Pakistan as that nation confronts the challenge of violent terrorism.”

“Whatever the case, the need to resume talks was paramount and what has just occurred is an intelligent response to Pakistan’s difficult internal situation,” Purkayastha said. “It is irresponsible to say we don’t care about Pakistan’s internal troubles or to believe that Pakistan is a single homogenous mass.”

Purkayastha also said that while it was okay to temporarily suspend the composite dialogue in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, this cannot be seen as a permanent solution.

“The mention of Balochistan in the Sharm el-Sheikh statement,” said Purkaystha, “could be seen as a concession to Gilani that might give him room for manoeuvre within the political space in Pakistan.”

Dipankar Banerjee, a retired Indian army general who now heads the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, a New Delhi based think tank, says the mention of Balochistan should have been avoided, considering it can dampen prospects of taking the dialogue process forward. But he was relieved to find that the statement contained no signs of bellicose finger pointing.

“Going by what was reported to have transpired at Sharm el-Sheikh and what the prime minister stated afterwards, the resumption of the composite dialogue would depend on how Islamabad deals with the Mumbai attacks,” Banerjee told IPS. “This is a reasonable position.”

Banerjee points out that the endeavour by the two nuclear rivals to create space for “back channel or track-two diplomacy” to work is significant.

“It is in the interests of both countries to continue talking to each other and it is certainly in India’s interest to find ways to ensure that Pakistan remains stable and secure,” Banerjee said.

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