THEY met, shook hands and inquired about one another’s health in their shared mother tongue. But they could not tell the people of their needlessly estranged countries what they have been wanting to hear for a long, long time.
That the prime ministers of India and Pakistan withstood all the pressures brought to bear on them by confrontationists in their camps and were able to devote one whole hour to matters of life and death for one-fifth of humankind can only be welcomed.
But the grim challenges confronting both India and Pakistan — all South Asian countries for that matter — do not permit them the luxury of meeting only for the sake of getting together. It is a pity that the statements made by the spokespersons after the New York encounter did not offer much room for optimism.
Pakistan has greater reason to feel disappointed because Mr Nawaz Sharif had been extra keen on talking to Mr Manmohan Singh who, for a variety of reasons, had been advised to play hard to get.
Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani had to sound satisfied with the talks to a greater extent than realism warranted. So he termed the meeting “extremely positive” because the two leaders “expressed their commitment to resolve all their issues”. But this has been the refrain in all communiqués after bilateral exchanges over the past many years. No politician today denies his readiness to settle any issues.
India’s national security adviser Shivshankar Menon was noticeably less effusive. Conceding that the prime ministers’ meeting was “necessary at this point of time” he was keen to clarify that “today’s meeting dealt with today’s issue”.
Mr Nawaz Sharif did raise a number of matters — trade, Siachen, Sir Creek, Balochistan, Kashmir, et al — but, according to Mr Menon, both sides agreed that all these issues could be taken up “once we have dealt with the immediate issues that we confront today”. And today’s issues, from India’s point of view, are only incidents along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir and punishing of the extremists responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack.
The outcome of the meeting thus is that Pakistan has been put on notice for good behaviour. Any progress towards India-Pakistan reconciliation will depend on Mr Nawaz Sharif’s ability to meet India’s concerns about Pakistan being, in New Delhi’s view, the “epicentre of terrorism”.
This means that India and Pakistan cannot break out of the fallacious assumption that they will become good neighbours only when the issues they have created to fuel confrontation between them have been put out of the way. A realistic assessment of the situation should convince them that contentious issues will be resolved only after they have developed normal and mutually beneficial relations.
Any Pakistani who argues that peace with India is impossible without a resolution of the Kashmir issue in fact condemns the people of Kashmir to perpetual turmoil and uncertainty and the people of India and Pakistan to permanent hostility. Progress towards a settlement on Kashmir will begin only when India and Pakistan have resolved to live in peace and cooperate with one another.
Likewise, the plea that India-Pakistan issues cannot be taken up till there is peace along the LoC amounts to allowing the autonomous militants to hold the two countries to ransom. Absence of friction along the LoC would be the fruit of understanding between the two neighbours instead of being the basis of such understanding.
We are aware of the hazards India’s leaders face while talking of reconciliation with Pakistan during the run-up to the general election. But it should not be impossible for them to realise that Pakistan and India both face a serious threat from the stateless terrorists.
Equally clear should be the fact that Pakistan needs India’s help in defeating the terrorists. Any display of haughtiness by India or Pakistan in dealing with one another strengthens the enemies of the people on both sides.
Both governments need to break new ground in order to acquire stakes in one another’s progress and prosperity: For instance, instead of Pakistan and India remaining trapped in fruitless quarrels over new dams on rivers coming down from Kashmir they may consider having agreements to share electricity generated by these works, like the one a socialist Soviet Union and the West’s close ally Iran had.
Similarly, one of the major causes of contention between India and Pakistan today is their senseless confrontation on Afghanistan. Both have legitimate interests in that country and they also have a duty to help it live in peace. The time for New Delhi and Islamabad to iron out their differences on Afghanistan is now.
True, there are vested interests on both sides that have flourished on the people’s suffering and they are mortally afraid of peace and goodwill between their countries. The answer does not lie in mortgaging the coming generation’s future with the merchants of hate. What is needed is the mobilisation of people of goodwill on either side to counter the mischief-makers.
Unfortunately, both India and Pakistan have a complete understanding where making contacts between ordinary Indians and Pakistanis more and more difficult is concerned. Even the accord on allowing senior citizens visa on arrival has been turned into an ordeal for the less resourceful people and there are complaints of travellers’ being harassed and turned back on flimsy grounds by the immigration staff.
A major effort to promote free travel between India and Pakistan is required, particularly in view of the fact that signs of hostility at the state level have started affecting the behaviour of the public in either country towards citizens belonging to the other country. If this process is not quickly arrested the prospects of India-Pakistan reconciliation will recede further.