Originally Published 2011-08-29 00:00:00 Published on Aug 29, 2011
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's initiatives at Sharm-el-Sheikh (Egypt), Thimpu and Chandigarh to improve relations with Pakistan, viewed with much skepticism at the time, were far-sighted. It is time now for even bolder steps.
Indo-Pak ties: Time for bolder steps
The visit of Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Ms Hina Rabbani Khar, went off better than one had expected. She struck the right notes when she spoke of "changed mindsets", the need to "shed the burden of history", and the young generation's desire for peace and friendly relations with India. She owned up, without the least hesitation or embarrassment, Manishankar Aiyar's idea of "uninterrupted and uninterruptible" India-Pakistan dialogue to resolve problems.

After Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna's bad experience in Islamabad with Shah Mehmood Qureshi last year, a gesture from Pakistan was called for to restore civility and a modicum of mutual courtesy and respect between high-level interlocutors. Ms Khar made the gesture with commendable dignity and grace. Her poise and youthful charm and the candour and transparent sincerity of her public pronouncements have warmed many hearts and won her a large constituency in India. All this augurs well for a sustained effort to make the dialogue "uninterruptible" and result-oriented.

I was dismayed by the huge play in our media of Ms Khar's Birkin handbag and Jimmy Choo shoes, and her meeting with Hurriyat leaders. The first is pardonable, because she came here at the end of Delhi's Couture Week and dazzled the Capital as no ramp-walker had done. The media should have paid more attention to the elegance, warmth, simplicity and conviction in which she clothed her words and her mission of peace. The tone of voice and feelings of Pakistan's youth she brought to us merit India's serious attention. A fast globalising world is no place for abiding animosity, and it was a particularly touching gesture on Ms Khar's part to pray at the two famous dargahs in Delhi and Ajmer for India-Pakistan peace.

I personally attach no importance to her meeting with the Hurriyat leaders. It needn't have caused the kind of flutter it did in government circles and in our media. These gentlemen are known to be Pakistan's constituency in our country. It was not entirely inappropriate for Pakistan's Foreign Secretary to describe the event as "democratic reach-out". We should have laughed the matter off, instead of expressing concern over it. Ms Khar herself, having done the chore, was dismissive of the event. Perhaps, the Generals back home, who must have concurred in her peace mission, needed a mollifier.

Pakistan is in a difficult internal situation and growing isolation externally. At home, it is ravaged by violence on the part of a whole generation of young jehadis raised in Pakistan's madarsas. They will be around for another decade or two; this is, therefore, a problem for the long haul. Externally, the ISI and the army are engaged in a running feud with the US and are, seemingly, unwilling or unable to stabilise Pakistan's turbulent western frontier to prevent the Taliban's depredations in Afghanistan.

There is some muted appreciation in Pakistan that while its army is engaged in action in the west, India is not giving them cause for concern in the east, but well-meaning Pakistanis are looking for more tangible support for Pakistan's fragile democracy. Many Pakistani friends have told me in recent months of a mood-change in Pakistan in regard to India, even in sections of the Pakistan military. In Pakistan's list of enemies, they say, India has been downgraded to the lowly third position, after the US and the indigenous terrorist organisations!

There isn't much India can do to help Pakistan in its ongoing spat with the US: they are allies of long standing, need each other and are bound to make up as the situation becomes clear in Afghanistan. Nor can much be done to allay Islamabad's unwarranted concern over India's development work in Afghanistan. But a lot can be done to forge a good neighbourly relationship through greatly enhanced people-to-people contacts, sports links, trade facilitation, joint economic activity, student exchanges and cooperation in ending the menace of terrorism. This last is a core issue with India and the onus to resolve it lies on Pakistan. What is needed is a visible dismantling of the whole India-focused apparatus of terror created and nurtured by the ISI since the 1980s.

Both China and the US have exploited Pakistan's geo-strategic importance, in parallel ways at different times, during the last six decades as an armed balancer against India in South Asia, and as the base for jehad against the erstwhile USSR. Unanticipated consequences of Pakistan's enthusiastic participation in those ventures is now threatening its stability; none of it has really enriched or strengthened Pakistan.

Pakistan's truly geo-strategic role lies in its as-yet-unrealised potential as a highway for the flow of trade and commerce, thought and culture between Central Asia and India. Activation of that role would enrich Pakistan and eliminate its aid-dependence in no time. In the bargain, it would make two vast regions dependent on it. But realisation of this potential also requires a stable, tranquil and cooperative Afghanistan.

India and Pakistan need not be at odds with each other in Afghanistan. We should be working together to safeguard Afghanistan's independence and integrity, its development and stability. Pakistan's suspicions of an Indian pincer on its left flank are totally misplaced. Sadly, Afghanistan did not figure in the Foreign Ministers' talks last month.

Of course, there are issues between our two countries, and Kashmir is the foremost among them. It is not a core issue only for Pakistan; Islamabad's illegal occupation of a part of the Indian state is a core issue for India as well. But the short-point about Kashmir is that India cannot give it to Pakistan, and Pakistan cannot take it by war or by turning its back on India. And clearly India is not going to war with Pakistan over PoK. Therefore, the only viable solution lies in restoring the freedom of movement and cultural and economic intercourse across the LoC: then it wouldn't matter very much which part of J&K belonged where. Our joint endeavour should be to make J&K a free-trade area and reduce the LoC to a line on the map. Rightly, therefore, the central focus in the Foreign Ministers' talks was on Kashmir-related CBMs. The CBMs they agreed on, though, are too slow-moving and much too limited in scope and in the areas they cover.

The dialogue on security issues should not remain confined to Kashmir, terrorism or the slow-moving Mumbai trial in Pakistan. Pakistan's security concerns vis-a-vis India, which keep General Ashfaque Parvez Kayani so distressingly India-focused, should be addressed in candid talks. Why can't the Chiefs of Staff of the Army of the two countries meet to allay each other's concerns? War is no longer an option for either country; so, why don't we invite General Kayani over for a visit and reassure him of India's peaceful intent? And why not go a step further and invite President Zardari to be the Chief Guest during the Republic Day celebrations in 2012 or 2013?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's initiatives at Sharm-el-Sheikh (Egypt), Thimpu and Chandigarh, viewed with much skepticism at the time, were far-sighted. It is time now for even bolder steps.

(Maharajakrishna Rasgotra is a former Foreign Secretary of India and now President of the ORF Centre for International Relations)

Courtesy: The Tribune

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