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The governments of India and Pakistan owe it to their citizens to engage in talks and to act substantively

by Economic and Political Weekly, 6 March 2010

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Economic and Political Weekly, 27 February 2010


Talking and Its Merits

The governments of India and Pakistan owe it to their citizens to engage in talks and to act substantively.

The foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan have met, they have exchanged dossiers, and allegations against each other’s governments have been made once again. This is not surprising. But we must be grateful that the governments of the two countries have at least spoken to each other and have committed themselves to be in touch and keep the channels open.

No sooner was the announcement made of the 25 February talks in New Delhi, then another terror incident – in Pune on 13 February for which investigations are still on and where the needle of suspicion must point as much towards extreme right- wing Hindu groups as at any internal or external Islamic fundamentalist networks – threatened to derail the meeting, as indeed must have been the aim of the perpetrators. The government of India must be given some credit for wanting the dialogue process to resume despite much political opposition over the perceived insufficient action by the civilian government in Pakistan on terror outfits operating in that country.

The official press releases and communiques by both the foreign secretaries following their meeting held on 25 February stuck to stated positions. India insisted on action on cross-border terrorism, while Pakistan wanted a resumption of the composite dialogue (suspended since the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai) with primacy given to the Kashmir issue. This has, however, been a theme even during the previous foreign secretary level talks. It has been the experience since 2004 that much of the progress made on major issues – such as on trade, bus links and “soft borders” – has been first recorded in the “back channel” and that this permeates into the official-level discussions. One hopes that, notwithstanding the aggressive positions taken during and after the meeting, this is indeed the case with this set of “talks about the talks” as well. That is, behind the public and official posturing, the Indians were willing to discuss disputes that could be easily resolved, while the Pakistanis were ready to acknowledge and address Indian concerns on terror groups in their country. It is, of course, almost certain that it was the United States that had nudged India to reopen discussions with its western neighbour, partly to keep Pakistan focused on combating the militants in its “tribal” areas and partly to keep Islamabad on Washington’s side in Afghanistan.

From an Indian viewpoint, engagement with the Pakistani civilian government whose democratic support base includes that section interested in peace between the two countries is a must if long-standing issues are to be resolved. The peace constituencies in both India and Pakistan have seen a surge in their ranks due to political and civil society efforts to engage in confidence-building measures, dialogue and people-to-people contacts over the past decade. Before the Mumbai attacks, steps had been taken for more than half a decade to find common ground and to resolve major issues. Differences over Sir Creek and cross-border movement and trade had been whittled down and much progress had been made in the resolution in many areas.

It is not just the fundamentalists and terror groups in both countries that are determined to keep the two countries in tension with each other. The security and “strategic affairs” establishments in India and Pakistan are just as keen to prevent any movement from the stated and belligerent positions. India’s security elite is against talks on any issue unless Pakistan acts on India-centric terrorist forces. And loose public talk such as the army chief’s comments on India preparing for “a cold start” to a devastating non-nuclear war does not inspire trust on the other side of Wagah. In Pakistan, there are similar groups which would like to focus on the threat from the “large” neighbour to the east and its attempt to build influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan does sense that the changed international (read US and other major powers) opinion on the required strategy in Afghanistan has helped give the country greater leverage in talks with India. The emphasis by western powers on creating a wedge between various factions of the Afghani Taliban by negotiation is a tactic that sits well with the Pakistan military establishment’s strategic aims in the region, including to retain influence in Afghanistan. These sentiments among the Indian and Pakistani strategic establishments are offered as convincing reasons to stall any shift from stated positions. Or so they believe, incorrectly.

It makes enough sense for India to restart a composite dialogue and quickly resolve issues such as Sir Creek and with political resolve at the highest level settle even Siachen) and to allay Pakistani concerns over water sharing. There is no solution to strife in Kashmir without a dialogue with Pakistan as well. On the other hand, Pakistan has been faced with an existential threat due to terror groups operating in various areas of the country – groups which had been mollycoddled by the security establishment for long and that have enjoyed a good relationship with jihadi outfits across both the eastern and western borders. Any return to the old strategy of fighting a proxy war in India through terror agencies and to support an extremist takeover of Afghanistan will only further the threat to the country from these very groups.

Concerns remain on both sides about the sincerity of the other in handling issues that have featured in the dialogue, but a calibrated effort to address those would only benefit both nations. To that extent, the secretary level talks are a step in the right direction and one hopes that better sense prevails in both the establishments to seriously engage with each other.