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Can Pakistan-India ties be normal?

Updated August 14, 2017

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AS people in Pakistan and India celebrate the 70th anniversary of their independence, they should spare a moment for introspection. The story of their relations is largely a history of conflict, war and acrimony. The traumatic circumstances of their independence still live in memory as does, paradoxically, the resonance of shared culture and centuries of common experience. There have been periods of calm and relative ease and transactions of important consequence such as the treaty on sharing of waters. Can they develop normal relations?

Personally, I have never served in India and my interaction with my Indian counterparts was limited to a somewhat tension-free period from February 2005 to April 2008. We had differences but managed them, maintaining diplomatic courtesy. We were able to negotiate the Delhi Declaration of April 2005 which affirmed that acts of terrorism would not be allowed to “impede the peace process”. We prevented disruption of the process after the Mumbai train blasts in July 2006. The November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, however, froze the dialogue. Surely, many of my colleagues engaged with India in less salubrious circumstances.

Leaders in both capitals should not forget that they are nursing tensions under a nuclear overhang.

Arguably, Kashmir lies at the heart of the conflict between the two countries. It impacted Pakistan’s security perceptions and policies, and aggravated mutual suspicion and distrust from the very first day of the independence. Yet this dispute is essentially political, hence resolvable. Historically, Pakistan’s position is based on UN resolutions which have no intractable ideological underpinnings. Among the several bilateral efforts to address the dispute, the last and the most sustained discussions were carried out through a backchannel (2005-06) under president Musharraf and prime minister Manmohan Singh. Importantly, the two sides tried to evolve a text for an interim agreement towards a settlement of this longstanding dispute. Considerable progress was achieved. Leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference were generally consulted except for Syed Ali Geelani who had ab initio rejected the process.

The idea was simple: to work out an understanding that protected the essential interests of the two countries and ensured optimum freedom for the Kashmiris to be masters of their own affairs in their sub-regions. If the 2007 judicial crisis in Pakistan had not intervened and the effort had proceeded normally for another couple of years, it could have reached a positive dénouement.

Sound proposals are on the table for the other two, albeit minor, disputes, Siachen and Sir Creek. As far back as in 1987, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had agreed in principle to disengagement from Siachen. The Indian Army leadership now rejects it. To preserve the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas and the Karakorams, it is important that this large glacier be saved from the stress caused by constant military activity and burning of energy.

I remember saying to my Indian interlocutors that even if we know that there are rocks of gold underneath, the ice of the glacier is more valuable and worthy of preservation through joint monitoring. Similarly, the shallow waters of Sir Creek (area approx 75 square kilometres) can be turned into a jointly managed sanctuary or nature park. These theatres of conflict can be turned into cooperative arenas, setting a new example of international collaboration.

All this now sounds like so much wishful thinking. Relations between the two countries have hit a low point. When a handful of militants attacked the Pathankot and Uri military bases, the Modi government stalled all dialogue with Pakistan, blaming Pakistan-inspired terrorism for the attacks. New Delhi conveniently ignores its own brutal repression of the stone-throwing Kashmiri youth uprising, which began last year in a continuation of three generations of Kashmiri rejection of the Indian control in the Valley.

Buoyed by a Hindu nationalist wave and stirrings of a resurgent India, Prime Minister Modi and BJP hardliners think they can isolate Pakistan and insist on a dialogue on their terms only. Pakistan can also hold back. It has its own challenges to address and can wait for Delhi to adopt a reasonable course. However, leaders in both capitals should not forget that they are nursing tensions under a nuclear overhang. And the threat is growing.

South Asia changed when both Pakistan and India demonstratively crossed the nuclear threshold in May 1998. The two countries are now obliged to maintain a responsible deterrence which first and foremost depends on a modicum of confidence building. Institutional measures and dialogue are indispensible to addressing crises to avert catastrophe. Dialogue opens up new avenues of cooperation; its absence is risky. In addition to multi-layered communication, periodic highest-level contacts are invaluable in the interest of peace. A nuclear exchange should simply remain unthinkable.

It is incumbent on the two countries to abandon dangerous doctrines such as the Cold Start and Pakistan’s riposte with miniaturisation of nuclear weapons. Ideas contingent on an autopilot escalation from a terrorist attack to a blitzkrieg to use of nuclear weapons defy sanity. Diplomacy and crisis management must interject every point of this trajectory. The two countries had sensibly embraced the concept of minimum credible deterrence and that sufficed as the central principle of their defence. In a situation of spiralling tension, the media is a wild card. It should desist from fuelling fires. Much too much is at stake.

Global power balance is in a flux with the rise of China and the reassertion of Russia. US primacy feels challenged. India aspires to great power status. This may be so, but these tectonic shifts are not necessarily heading towards a confrontation. The Middle East offers lessons to other regions. In this changing scenario, Pakistan retains importance, strength, relationships and options, regionally and globally.

The two countries are not locked into perennial hostility. Regardless of how we interpret the two-nation theory, I am among those who cannot accept Pakistan as a mere antithesis of India. Pakistan has its distinct persona, its unique history and its positive aspirations. Looking at Pakistan and India in this 70th year of their independence, I see ‘two sacred rivers’ sharing the same source and moving in opposite directions; yet they belong to the same subcontinent and will continue to flow forever.

The writer is a former foreign secretary and an author.

Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2017