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Dialogue without end

July 01, 2011

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THE time has surely come to take a retrospective look at the erratic course of the dialogue between India and Pakistan since 2006 with a view to making a realistic assessment of its prospect in the near future.

Talks between Foreign Secretaries Nirupama Rao and Salman Bashir concluded in Islamabad on June 24 on a pleasant note, with a joint press conference. As expected, though, the results were limited. They are likely to meet again to prepare for the foreign ministers' talks in New Delhi this month. Reports in the Indian press on Pakistan Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar's leadership of Pakistan's team are positive and she is assured of a warm welcome.

Limited though they are, the gains of the June 24 talks are not to be sniffed at. To begin with, trade across the Line of Control (LoC) has virtually come to a grinding halt, belying the expectations it had aroused and causing frustration amongst not only the traders but also the public. It is all to the good, therefore, that both sides have now agreed to convene a working group on cross-LoC confidence-building measures. The group is expected to propose ways of strengthening travel and trade arrangements and to suggest modalities for easing the present arrangements which verge on the obscene.

Existing cross-LoC trade is by barter. There are no banking facilities, no arrangements for the mutual acceptance of letters of credit and no agreement on currency. Pakistan's currency is as freely available in Kashmir and even in some parts of New Delhi as Indian currency is accepted by some in Karachi, including not a few well-reputed establishments. Yet hackles were raised in New Delhi when the president of the People's Democratic Party, Mehbooba Mufti, suggested the acceptance of both currencies in Kashmir.

Additionally, traders must be aware of the state of the market on the other side. That implies free and reliable telecommunications. The group will also discuss the expansion of the list of items that can be traded, an increase in the frequency of the bus service and in the number of trading days. If the foreign ministers settle this problem they will impart a significant fillip to the dialogue process.

The same holds true for confidence-building measures in the nuclear field. It may be recalled that the Lahore Declaration of Feb 21, 1999, signed by Prime Ministers Mohammad Nawaz Sharif and Atal Behari Vajpayee, recorded an agreement to “take immediate steps for reducing the risk of accidental or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons and discuss concepts and doctrines with a view to elaborating measures for confidence building in the nuclear and conventional fields aimed at the prevention of conflict”.

In the decade that followed this accord, “doctrines” and “concepts” were aired by both sides causing unease all around. The foreign ministers are expected to finalise arrangements for cooperation between the National Defence University in Islamabad and the National Defence College in New Delhi. They should go further and agree on visits by the army chiefs to each other's countries. India and China hold such meetings, and there is no reason why India and Pakistan cannot. Discussions between the army chiefs will help remove misconceptions on “concepts” and “doctrines”. Think-tanks specialising in this field will also benefit from expositions of “the other” side's views and fears.

The reported accord on the liberalisation of the currently severely restricted visa does not go far enough. Nevertheless, any and all the gains achieved are welcome. However, they deserve to be expanded.

Now for a retrospective look at and assessment of the prospects: we have not surmounted the problems created in the two difficult years of 2007 and 2008. Worse, positions have hardened on matters of consequence. That the talks in Islamabad concerning Wullar Barrage, held on May 12 and 13, failed caused no surprise, still less the failure of those on Siachen in New Delhi on May 31. That was the 12th round in a series that saw the accord of 1989 abandoned and the promising one of 1992 aborted, due in each case to pressure from the Indian Army. Only a political decision at the highest level will resolve these two disputes: Siachen as part of a settlement of the Kashmir dispute and the Wullar Lake as part of a process in which that settlement appears imminent.

In both cases, the outlines of a settlement are well-established, far more so on the Sir Creek issue. Yet in the talks in Rawalpindi on May 20 and 21, only non-papers were exchanged. Why? It is neither necessary nor profitable to guess precisely why an impasse has arisen on this issue. It is far more worthwhile to reckon with the impasse in the overall relationship and tackle its causes.

Progress on the limited accords will help significantly, as will exchanges between members of the civil society, especially legislators and media persons. But only an understanding on how to arrive at a closure on the Mumbai attacks issue, which is largely responsible for the freeze in the relationship, will help to put a promising dialogue back on the rails.

Meanwhile, the cause of peace is ill-served by fatuous slogans on the core issue — Kashmir. A broad accord subsists already. The cause will be best served by convincing the public on both sides that the accord is in the best interests of Pakistan and India — the only one our history permits.

When the foreign ministers meet later this month, they should keep that vision before them even as they tackle issues of the moment.

The writer is an author and a lawyer.