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June 22, 2011

Moving towards a dream... slowly


June 22, 2011

On May 12, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travelled to Kabul for the first time since 2005. There, he announced $500 million in Indian aid, raising India’s total contribution to $2 billion for developmental projects for Afghanistan and increasing cooperation on security issues between the two governments. Singh’s pronouncements in Kabul were followed with great attention in Pakistan.
Asked whether India would mount a covert action similar to the United States operation to kill Osama bin Laden if it had credible evidence of fugitives wanted by India in Pakistan, Singh downplayed such a possibility: “Experience in the past has been rather frustrating and disappointing. One cannot lose hope. Let me say one thing: ...India is not like the United States.”
Days earlier, shortly after bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan, reporters had asked Indian Army chief Gen V K Singh and Indian Air Force chief P V Naik the same question: Could India go after Pakistan-based terrorists? The answer in both cases: Yes, we can.
Pakistan had retaliated with counterwarnings. Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir remarked that such “misadventure” could lead to a “terrible catastrophe” — a quick reminder of his country’s nuclear capabilities.
Some Indian television anchors and strategic-affairs hawks had continued egging on the Indian government to raid Pakistan and assassinate men like Hafiz Saeed, the chief of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, whom India holds responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. The main opposition, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party called on Singh to rethink his Pakistan policy and demand Ibrahim’s extradition, saying “talks and terror cannot coexist.” Even within Singh’s Congress Party, several leaders clamoured to end talks with Pakistan. “Singh is in a minority even in his party, but he resisted all the pressure to end talks with Pakistan,” says an analyst.
Singh advocates Indian engagement with Pakistan

aimed at resolving all disputes, including the future of Kashmir. A slow process of meetings between Indian and Pakistani officials has lumbered on since late 2003, reaching its most fruitful moment in April 2005, when the two countries agreed to allow a bus service for divided families across the Line of Control (LOC), the de facto border between Indian-controlled and Pakistan-controlled parts of Kashmir.
Some hopeful moments followed, as back-channel talks between India and Pakistan in 2006 and 2007 backed by Singh and then-President Pervez Musharraf came close to an informal agreement about the way out of the Kashmir dispute. Indian and Pakistani diplomats had come to agree on a largely autonomous Kashmir with soft borders between the Indian-controlled and Pakistani-controlled regions, followed by a gradual demilitarisation of the area. But the idea did not go further, due to subsequent political turmoil in Pakistan, followed by Musharraf stepping down in August 2008. India formally ended talks with Pakistan after terrorists based in Pakistan attacked Mumbai in November 2008.
Singh’s insistence in Kabul on not losing hope for peace with Pakistan is important in the volatile context of relations between the nuclear-armed neighbours. He also decisively ended the speculation of such an attack that had filled the Indian public sphere in the aftermath of the bin Laden killing.
India has mounted intense diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to prosecute terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks and their handlers, calling for the arrest of the leaders of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hafiz Saeed, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief. Pakistan has arrested some operatives of Lashkar-e-Taiba, but New Delhi wants more.
In this edgy, volatile context, when the Indian discourse seems dominated by jingoism, Singh’s consistent attempts for a continued dialogue with Pakistan to address the disputes between the two countries are worthy. Singh risked serious political capital by agreeing to decouple action on terrorism from a broader political dialogue aimed at discussing “all outstanding issues” with Pakistan after meeting Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in July 2009.
More meetings between foreign ministers and secretaries followed in 2010, even if with little results. Pakistan wanted India to agree on a time frame for beginning discussions on Kashmir and the contested Siachen glacier; India sought progress in investigation and prosecution of those involved in the Mumbai attacks.
The question of Kashmir dominated the summer of 2010 as Indian-controlled Kashmir witnessed intifada-style protests, renewed calls for independence, and deaths of 110 unarmed protesters, after Indian troops opened fire to quell the protests. Singh was slow in responding to the crisis in Kashmir. In August 2010, at the height of the crisis, he came on Indian national television and expressed his grief at the killings of young Kashmiri protesters. Yet, after the Indian military’s opposition, he did not even repeal or partly modify the notorious Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which gives Indian troops in Kashmir impunity from prosecution if they kill anyone on suspicion. In September 2010, as Singh was to decide on the AFSPA, India’s military chiefs made it clear in person that they opposed any dilution of their powers, insisting on the need for “legal protection” to fight in Kashmir. The laws remain unchanged.
As Kashmir smouldered, the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers met at the United Nations; the mood was tense, even hostile. Pakistan renewed the old call for a plebiscite in Kashmir and criticised India for human rights violations in Kashmir. India retorted that Pakistan allowed its territory to be used as a staging ground for attacks against its neighbour.
A detente of sorts happened this March, as the two countries focused on the Cricket World Cup. Singh sought re-engagement and invited Gilani to watch the India-Pakistan match with him in Mohali. This was also a gesture of projecting the legitimacy of Pakistan’s civilian government over its Army.
Singh’s strategy of engaging Pakistan is seen by diplomatic observers to have the potential to improve trade relations between the two neighbours, though progress on terrorism and resolving Kashmir is expected to be slow. On April 28 in Islamabad, the commerce secretaries of India and Pakistan agreed to increase trade between the countries, currently a paltry $2 billion, compared to India-China trade of $61 billion.
“Apart from economic gains, greater trade will gradually enlarge the constituency of those in Pakistan who have a stake in the normalisation of relations with India,” argued Siddharth Varadarajan, strategic-affairs editor of The Hindu.
The Asia Society’s recent report, “Pakistan 2020” also recommends reforming visa processes, increasing people-to- people contact, and developing cooperative energy projects, such as joint natural gas pipelines and joint electricity-generation projects, to improve relations. Such moves remain hostage to the questions of Kashmir and terrorism that dominate Indo-Pak relations. Even at the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union had numerous journalists reporting from each other’s countries; India and Pakistan each allow only two reporters — and with limited access.
Although incendiary proclamations have intensified tensions since the killing of bin Laden, the realism of politicians like Singh has ensured that talks will continue. Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries will meet in New Delhi in July. Security agencies of both countries are meeting in mid-June to find ways of working together on curbing the drug trade. Travel dates for Indian and Pakistani delegations to visit the other country to talk about the Mumbai attack investigations are being decided.
Singh seems to understand that hawkish stances achieve little for India and only strengthen the hard-liners in Pakistan. But with both countries’ militaries owning so much of the political conversation (particularly in Pakistan), the two nations are a long way from realising Singh’s memorable formulation of making borders irrelevant — “I dream of a day, while retaining our respective national identities, one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore, and dinner in Kabul. That is how my forefathers lived. That is how I want our grandchildren to live,” he said at a meeting of business leaders in New Delhi, January 2007.
For now, it appears that the dream might have to wait for his great-grandchildren. But if the will of the politicians on both sides prevail, it is still something to look forward to.

Basharat Peer is a writer from Srinagar. His recently published book ‘Curfewed Night’ is an account of the Kashmir conflict. He writes about South Asian politics for several publications. This is a modified version of an article that first appeared in on May 31, 2011

Caption : Handshakes for peace: Pakistani PM Yusuf Raza Gilani and Indian PM Dr Manmohan Singh; (below) Indian and Pakistani Foreign Secretaries Nirupama Rao and Salman Bashir

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