IN all probability, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will visit Pakistan in November. President Asif Ali Zardari formally invited him last month, saying, “We could use that occasion to arrange a visit to your ancestral town.”
The two leaders are expected to meet in Tehran at the end of this month when both will attend the NAM summit. For good measure, on Sept 7, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna will be in Islamabad to resume his talks with Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar. This would be a rare instance of the leaders preparing for their own summit.
It is not difficult to identify the immediate doables. But the record of India-Pakistan relations is replete with instances of accords being delayed or aborted in their implementation, the euphoria evaporating with distressing consistency. We need to ask ourselves what it is in the equation between these countries which causes the hitches. The agreement on trade is yet to be implemented. Signing of the agreement on visa liberalisation was put off at the last moment.
If India’s newly appointed home minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, were to accompany the prime minister, he could put his signature on the visa agreement. The influence of the respective home ministries on relations between these countries must not be underestimated. Still less that of the intelligence services or the armies.
From 1989 to this day, successive chiefs of the Indian army have blocked any accord on Siachen on the only basis on which accord is possible, namely withdrawal of forces by both sides. Not long ago, the Sir Creek issue was on the verge of settlement, only to come unstuck. These two issues have acquired an importance and complexity far beyond the national interests, strategic or otherwise, of either of the contesting sides.
It is improbable that the summit, if held, will radically improve the situation. Pakistan is due to go to the polls next year and India the year after next. But what can be hoped for is a quiet, unpublicised narrowing of differences so that the successor governments can bridge them with little effort. The leaders can lay the foundations now. That is all the more true of the four-point Pervez Musharraf-Manmohan Singh formula on Kashmir. It cannot be finalised now, but it can be dusted up and brought to life.
There are, besides, a host of immediate doables. To begin with, the sheer obscenity of barter trade across the Line of Control (LoC) must end. It is urgently imperative that conditions indispensable for any trade worth the name are fulfilled — banking facilities, agreement on currency, telecommunication links, opportunities for personal interaction and a mechanism for conflict resolution.
The disclosures by Zulfiqar Abbasi, former president of the Jammu and Kashmir Joint Chambers of Commerce (JKJCC), are shocking. He was in Srinagar last month along with traders from Azad Kashmir to attend a conference. But they had to travel via Wagah. “The authorities on both sides don’t allow us to travel via the Muzaffarabad road,” he explained.
Worse still, the two governments “are not allowing us to hold meetings; earlier we had to fix meetings of the JKJCC in countries like Sri Lanka and Turkey.” Traders from India and Pakistan can freely travel to and fro. If Kashmiris are prevented from doing so across the LoC, it is because both sides have decided not to permit that pending a settlement of the Kashmir dispute.
Trust is altogether lacking in relations between India and Pakistan. For the last nearly half a century they have been in a state of frozen sulk. Till as late as 1965 one could get copies of this daily the very same day in Mumbai. Tashkent restored the status quo ante bellum militarily, but no more. Events thereafter did not improve the situation.
There are no cross-border exchanges between universities, think tanks, lawyers who face identical issues pertaining to judicial review and the independence of the judiciary, legislators, and businessmen. It is the governments which prevent the exchanges. ‘Trust deficit’ is a convenient excuse. Were things much better before the Mumbai strikes in November 2008?
President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have a historic opportunity to grasp the nettle. They must lift the barriers and allow the peoples of their countries to move across the boundaries and talk to each other. The present impasse is far worse than the regime of communication between Western countries and the Soviet Union, especially in the latter phase of the Cold War.
One fails to understand why the army chiefs cannot meet and dispel doubts about each other’s military doctrines; Cold Start, for example.
There are two tacit assumptions underlying the prolonged and artificial official impediments to people-to-people exchanges: (a) ‘our stand’ might become weaker, domestically and abroad; and (b) if pressed hard, the ‘other side’ will yield. Experience has belied both assumptions.
For all their internal problems, the two governments never enjoyed the domestic support for peace which they do now. In India, all others support conciliation barring the Bharatiya Janata Party. Pakistan is more fortunate. The chief of the main opposition party, Mian Nawaz Sharif, is the proud co-architect of the 1997 charter for composite dialogue and is all for conciliation.
So, contrary to the myth, is Pakistan’s army. Gen Kayani said in April that “peaceful coexistence is necessary for both countries. There is no doubt about that.” The situation on the ground has been more peaceful than at any time since militancy erupted in 1989. Even according to Indian army estimates, infiltration across the LoC is down by 90 per cent.
While Pakistan and India conduct their diplomatic exchanges at a leisurely pace, Kashmiris continue to suffer. Besides the curbs on Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was put in house detention to prevent him from leading Eid prayers. Let alone political freedom, even freedom to practise religion is being curbed.
The entire subcontinent has suffered because of the impasse in relations between Pakistan and India. Is it, indeed, beyond their leaders to spare a thought for the lot of their peoples, especially the Kashmiris, and consciously break from a sorry past? That is precisely what summits are meant for.
The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.