Pak-India dialogue

Published March 20, 2017

PAKISTAN High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit has made a sensible and timely observation: important as the terrorism issue is to bilateral ties, there are other matters of equal importance that deserve to be focused on and therefore dialogue needs to be revived at the earliest.

The high commissioner’s remarks came on a day that the BJP shocked India with its nomination of a controversial, hard-line Hindu priest to the post of chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state. The reaffirmation of a message of constructive dialogue on Pakistan’s part at a time when India may be lurching further to the political right is necessary; the stakes are simply too high for India and Pakistan to drift into a new era of turbulent relations.

The high commissioner’s remarks, then, are a welcome reminder that right- thinking individuals in both countries are continuing to dwell on the need for dialogue and not jettisoning the shared experience of the past seven decades, which has proved that while dialogue is difficult to initiate and even harder to sustain, it is the only realistic option.

Consider the so-called low-hanging fruit that Mr Basit referred to: Sir Creek and Siachen. Sir Creek in particular was once regarded as an agreement within reach — a border and maritime dispute that can be resolved by technical teams, if the political will to do so exists.

Similarly, the mindless stand-off in Siachen, more than three decades old and a growing environmental concern, could be resolved in a manner that satisfies both the military and political leaderships in both countries. But the freezing of dialogue has stalled all progress, in disputes small and large. And in the case of Siachen, there is a sense that the intransigence of the Indian military and its growing influence in the national security and foreign policy domains have effectively cancelled the low-hanging-fruit status of the Siachen dispute. Unhappily, the absence of dialogue is allowing other factors to intervene and make historical and already complicated disputes even more complex.

The revival of political will to engage in dialogue is the obvious starting point.

Having established his party as the dominant political force in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has an opportunity to pivot and return to the path of dialogue with Pakistan. Mr Modi also now has the benefit of greater experience — the unexpected return to dialogue and the unveiling of the so-called comprehensive dialogue process with additional baskets in late 2015 was a commendable effort, but was not adequately militancy-proofed. The subsequent Pathankot attack caused a rupture where more experienced and committed dialogue partners may have found a way to sustain the process.

Almost a year and a half later, with Pakistan having taken a few steps against India-centric militant groups and large-scale counterterrorism operations under way across the country, the dialogue process can be restarted in a more conducive environment.

Published in Dawn, March 20th, 2017

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