THE peace process in South Asia moves in fits and starts: things look up one moment, only to come crashing down the very next. The last few years have been particularly tense, with the situation along the Line of Control volatile, while the two states came to the brink of another war in 2019 after India’s Balakot misadventure. However, of late it seems that efforts are under way to cool temperatures and restart the dialogue process, apparently through the backchannel.

The first sign of this thaw came last month, when the respective DGMOs established contact and announced resumption of the ceasefire along the LoC. Further signs that something is afoot came on Wednesday when Prime Minister Imran Khan, speaking at the Islamabad Security Dialogue, said that India should make the first move to normalise ties, while adding that Kashmir was the “lone irritant” standing in the way of better Pakistan-India relations. On Thursday, the army chief made similar comments at the same forum, saying it was time to “bury the past and move forward”, while again highlighting the need to resolve the Kashmir imbroglio.

The prime minister has a point because after the LoC ceasefire, India, being the bigger regional power, should initiate the dialogue process. Earlier on, Mr Khan had also said that if India takes one step towards peace, Pakistan will take two. The fact is that in the current atmosphere, the resumption of the dialogue process itself will be a major achievement. A state of perpetual conflict suits no one, particularly the millions of poor in South Asia, while better relations can pave the way for socioeconomic uplift for all. As the COAS noted at the Islamabad forum, South Asia is “amongst the least integrated regions of the world” and defence spending “comes at the expense of human development”.

However, as positive as the signals appear, it would be premature to celebrate ‘talks about talks’. Both countries have been at a similar juncture before, where negotiations had reached an advanced stage and peace seemed imminent. However, the process was derailed and soon it was back to square one. Such mistakes have to be avoided this time around and interlocutors on both sides need to tread carefully without raising expectations.

The progress achieved in earlier discussions should be built on, and so-called soft areas — people-to-people contacts; Sir Creek etc — can be a starting point to reach the tougher issues on the agenda, such as Kashmir, militancy etc. For starters, hawks on both sides must be sidelined so a conducive atmosphere is created for dialogue as there will always be noisy lobbies for war in both countries. Constituencies for peace need to be strengthened so that the complicated issues poisoning ties since independence are resolved, and South Asia can move forward on the journey of human development and economic progress.

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2021

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