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It’s no time to suspend Pakistan-India dialogue

August 24, 2013
Those advocating ‘no talks’ should also give us an idea of what they propose instead. Do they want a war?
Those advocating ‘no talks’ should also give us an idea of what they propose instead. Do they want a war?

NEW DELHI: The India-Pakistan Line of Control (LoC) has become volatile, with beheadings, attacks, deaths and firings in daily violations of the 2003 ceasefire.

As army officers in India point out, the first casualty of LoC incidents is the “truth” as both the militaries make their own stories, and their own facts. Both accuse the other of ‘starting it first’, insisting that they had maintained calm and peace on their side.

India’s hard-nosed retired officials recently wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urging him not to meet his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif.

“There should be no talks” has been the refrain from the Bharatiya Janata Party as well, with the weak-kneed Congress succumbing to the pressure of continually chastising Pakistan while keeping the talks on hold. Peace activists who have been insisting that the dialogue must continue have been dismissed by both the government and the opposition, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh waits for the climate to right itself so that he can meet his Pakistani counterpart in New York next month. However, if the pressure continues, Singh, in all probability, will call off the meeting.

Of course it is true that the prime minister will not be able to achieve much through a meeting towards the end of his second and probably last term in office. He is not in a position to take decisions, or implement decisions regarding India-Pakistan relations and hence neither country will lose anything in substantive terms if the meeting is indeed called off. However, it will impact the peace process adversely, making it clear once again that both India and Pakistan have not succeeded in institutionalising this all-important dialogue.

Those advocating ‘no talks’ should also give us an idea of what they propose instead. Do they want a war? How will that resolve the problem? And at what cost? Surely, it cannot be anyone’s case that in this time and age, India should declare war instead of working for peace?

The attack on the Indian soldiers recently did arouse passions, but there has been deep criticism within the army of the political pressure to send the army chief, Gen Bikram Singh, to the LoC when the task should have been left entirely to the region’s commander. The army chief, sources said, should have refused to intervene in this manner but did not.

Given the fact that India shares borders with two countries it considers ‘hostile’, it stands to reason that the first priority for the government should be to ensure that the ceasefire holds, and that border incidents are tackled instantly and calm restored.

It is only the very foolish who will advise the government to break off talks with Pakistan, at a time when dialogue is essential to peace. This jingoistic tendency to ‘teach lessons’ has to be replaced by a strategic and calibrated call for peace.

The Indian side of the LoC has been secured physically to a great extent. Flood lighting, fencing and electronic surveillance have been installed to aid the military and paramilitary patrols on the border. However, integrated border management is still non-existent, with the prime minister and his government unable to formulate a comprehensive scheme for the same.

A department of border management was set up under the ministry of home affairs nearly ten years ago, but seems to have contributed little to formulating a border policy. Instead, it has focused its attention on border outposts, fencing and other such works to secure the LoC and indeed the borders that India shares with other countries in the region.

The department has recognised the need to make the population living alongside the LoC in particular more secure physically and mentally, but not much has moved on this front.

This is quite the opposite to China, which has built the necessary infrastructure along its borders with India to enable free and quick movement of its military.

At the same time, as this writer saw during a visit to Tibet, the Chinese are building sufficient infrastructure to take care of their border populations. For instance, large-scale construction of free housing was being carried out to settle nomads in colonies well before the Line of Actual Control.

Managing Borders

India, unfortunately, has no policy for managing its borders with tensions at the Line of Control, for instance, cutting into bilateral relations at the drop of a hat.

It is important for both India and Pakistan to appoint an integrated border authority comprising high-level political leaders from each side.

This body should be charged with monitoring developments along the LAC and moving in to defuse tensions as soon as these are reported. One is suggesting a political body as that alone would have the authority to direct officials to immediately implement confidence-building measures, or to suggest new proposals to bring down the tension quotient. Tensions should not be allowed to rise, as then any little incident can create a major incident that none of the countries can afford. War cannot be the answer, and border management can ensure that peace prevails.

The writer is consulting editor of The Statesman.

By arrangement with The Statesman/ANN