AFTER the abrupt and bewildering cancellation of a meeting between the Pakistani and Indian foreign ministers by the Indian government, the speeches by the two foreign ministers at the United Nations General Assembly took on added importance.

Would Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Sushma Swaraj try and rein in emotion and avoid further escalating tensions or would a fresh crisis in Pakistan-India relations erupt?

For now, it appears that India and Pakistan have stuck to their respective lines: India petulantly and counter-factually blaming Pakistan for the absence of dialogue, Pakistan calling for dialogue while emphasising that such a call should not be interpreted by India as a sign of weakness.

Given the unfortunate build-up to the UNGA, two relatively low-key speeches by the Indian and Pakistanis foreign ministers were perhaps the best that could be expected in the circumstances. What is far from clear is how and when the distance between the Indian and Pakistani positions on dialogue can be bridged.

For Pakistan, the challenge remains the same as it has been for at least two years now: drawing the world’s attention to the state of repression and violence in India-held Kashmir while also being able to discuss a range of other issues with India.

The Pakistani state has rightly insisted that a solution to the Kashmir dispute lies at the heart of long-term peace and stability in the region, but has also acknowledged that several other issues can be addressed in the meantime.

Indeed, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s letter to his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, was sensibly crafted and demonstrated a willingness on Pakistan’s part to not impose unrealistic expectations or demands on dialogue with India.

Yet, even though India has seemingly conclusively spurned talks with Pakistan for the foreseeable future — though in the context of South Asia, the foreseeable future can quickly change — Pakistan should continue with its balanced approach.

Arguably, the best possibility for Pakistan drawing the outside world’s attention to the harrowing circumstances that the people of IHK are living in is to maintain a reasonable approach to India in the context of the overall relationship.

For India, between now and the general election scheduled for next year, there will need to be a reckoning with the BJP’s perplexing attitude towards Pakistan’s government.

A reluctance to engage Pakistan in dialogue has been complemented by bellicose statements and a hawkish military approach — but it surely cannot be argued that India is any closer to achieving its goals. All that the hawks in India have achieved is another wasted few years of opportunity and a region that is more tense than it was before the BJP returned to power.

If war is not a possibility — and it is categorically not in a nuclear South Asia — then dialogue is the only option.

When will India realise this?

Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2018

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