IT has now been confirmed that officials from the Pakistani and Indian governments are engaged in quiet talks aimed at reducing tension in the region and resolving outstanding conflicts, including the core issue of Jammu and Kashmir. According to a report in this newspaper, officials have confirmed that the two adversaries have been holding a backchannel dialogue since 2017.
However, in December last year, the talks went into higher gear when the Indian side approached the Pakistani government for a deeper engagement. The Pakistani leadership responded favourably, and as a result, a number of confidence-building measures have come to the fore, including a ceasefire agreement at the Line of Control. Pakistani officials say there is a genuine desire to move towards a peaceful resolution of disputes in order for Pakistan to achieve internal and external stability. So far the talks are being held between senior intelligence officials from both sides. It is said that relevant experts may join these talks once the agenda moves on to specific items. For now, these are talks about talks.
But they should be welcomed. Pakistan and India cannot afford to go to war and the lesson of 2019 is that both are closer to a conflict than they might want to admit. The only way to ensure a conflagration does not break out is to make a genuine and sincere attempt at resolving disputes that can potentially trigger a conflict. However, both Islamabad and New Delhi have been down this path numerous times before, with very little to show for it. The lessons learnt, if any, are that the two sides should move gradually and not rush into solutions. There are strong and influential lobbies on both sides that can act as spoilers. It is therefore reasonable for these talks to remain quiet and discreet till there is enough confluence of positions that can be brought into the glare of the public. In Pakistan, past attempts have floundered because of differences of approach between the civil and military leaderships. If the current talks have to be meaningful, it might be important to ensure not just that Rawalpindi and Islamabad are in lockstep, but also that other political parties are brought into the loop. There should be a broad consensus across the political spectrum on this strategic initiative so that it does not fall victim to petty politicking.
In addition, past lessons also tell us that such major policies should not be confined to individual decision-makers but should have a buy-in from all relevant institutions so that they do not remain dependent on personal priorities. The present leadership that is piloting this new, bold and timely move to give peace a chance should invest time and effort in forging a broad consensus around this policy. South Asia deserves a better future.
Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2021