QUESTIONS had been swirling about what and who has prompted the latest detente between Pakistan and India. Now, it appears that these queries have been answered to some extent,

         with the UAE’s ambassador to Washington saying that his country was mediating between the rival South Asian states. Yousef Al Otaiba, while participating in a virtual discussion confirmed that the UAE is helping bring Pakistan and India together. While he didn’t expect Islamabad and New Delhi to “become best friends”, Mr Otaiba did want to see the relationship as “healthy and functional”. The ambassador’s comments coincide with reports that Pakistani and Indian intelligence officials met in Dubai, amongst other locations, which has apparently played a role in restoring calm along the Line of Control.

While India has always been averse to third parties getting involved in mediation, perhaps the latest round of bilateral contacts have been accepted by New Delhi as there have been backchannel negotiations, occurring away from the public view. Moreover, the UAE appears to be an interlocutor that is acceptable to both parties, as opposed to the US or other Western states playing the role of peacemaker. Regardless of who is pushing the peace process forward, the fact that Pakistan and India are talking after a very long period of vitriolic exchanges must be appreciated. While this country has kept the door for dialogue open, the sentiment has not always been reciprocated by the other side. However, attitudes in India may be changing, and even a ‘functional’ relationship is better than a constant state of confrontation.

Yet despite the positive vibes, people in both countries — especially the respective media outlets — must not hope for an immediate solution. This bilateral relationship is one of the most difficult in the world. The states have fought a number of wars and a high level of mistrust exists between the establishments of the two sides. So while hope does spring eternal, ground realities must not be forgotten. In the present circumstances, the best way forward is to quietly continue backchannel talks, away from angry, noisy lobbies that are unwilling to accept a peaceful subcontinent. Once there is progress, a blueprint for more formal talks can be laid out. The fact is that when it comes to Pakistan-India relations even preliminary negotiations and CBMs on ‘soft’ issues are an achievement. This is the first step in a long journey of normalisation, and it should be remembered that several such steps have been taken in the past, only for the process to fizzle out amongst noise and confusion. The other alternative — of conflict — prophesied by some, including the US, is quite unsavoury and the leaderships of both countries owe it to their people to give their all to the peace process, and put decades of wars, hatred and confrontation behind them.

Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2021

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