THE increased frequency of India-Pakistan talks and the tone of their joint statements should provide a helpful setting for the meeting of their foreign ministers scheduled for some time this month.
There is something to be said for the two governments' resolve to keep talking about the issues that divide them. The commerce secretaries met in April, the defence secretaries in May and the foreign secretaries in June. Negotiations have been held on Sir Creek and a working group has been trying to evolve a visa regime that is a little more in accord with commonsense and the interest of the people of the two countries.
That these talks have not yielded any concrete results is a complaint heard in both countries. It is easy to get fed up quickly with what may appear to be talking for the sake of talking.
True, these exchanges have not led to a breakthrough in establishing bilateral relations between South Asia's closest and yet unnecessarily quarrelsome neighbours on the basis of sanity and mutual good. Nor could such a happy turn of events be expected because, among other things, it is not easy for the present cast of players to deviate from the roles delineated by their predecessors over decades of ignoble labour.
Considering the huge mess India and Pakistan have made of their bilateral relations the effort to live up to the slogan of uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue sometimes borders on the heroic.
At the same time, an improvement in the rhetoric of the two countries' official spokespersons can only be welcomed. The joint statement issued after the meeting of foreign secretaries last month at least kept the hope of progress towards normal relations alive. The Indian foreign secretary has described this round of talks as 'productive' and 'positive'. Her observation that New Delhi's decision to suspend the process of dialogue after the Mumbai outrage was probably not correct has caused a flutter in many Pakistanis' hearts, especially those of diehard confrontationists. It is doubtful though that they will agree to a similar formulation about Islamabad's protracted refusal to talk to India until the Kashmir issue was solved.
While it is good that India and Pakistan have decided to sustain their dialogue despite feeling strongly about Mumbai and Kashmir respectively the fact is that both sides keep referring to these issues of 'permanent concern' to them. The emphasis, quite clearly, is still on resolving the points of divergence while the times demand immediate and concerted action to overcome the militant and fundamentalist forces that are threatening not only Pakistan and India but also all other parts of South Asia.
Pakistan is facing a challenge to its integrity and its foundational polity both. Its failure on either front will have extremely grave consequences for the whole of South Asia, for India more than any other country, and time is fast running out. Indian and Pakistani representatives can no longer afford the luxury of testing each other's wits across the table, obliging photographers with broad smiles on their expressionless faces, and scanning the dictionaries for platitudes to hide their setbacks or difficulties. The need for evolving a joint India-Pakistan strategy to fight terrorism has apparently been accepted by both sides; but it is yet to be spelled out in detail.
Apart from sharing information and exchange of counter-terrorism modules the two countries can help each other by harmonising their policies on Afghanistan. It will not only be unwise but positively dangerous for either side to deny the other's legitimate interest in friendly relations with Afghanistan. Indeed, the time may be ripe for Pakistan and India to launch a joint initiative for helping the rise of a democratic Afghanistan and securing the cooperation of other regional powers in this regard.
The nexus between militancy and religious fundamentalism is quite obvious, and both India and Pakistan have a duty to refrain from doing anything that fuels hatred and animosity against one another. A great deal of benefit should accrue to both countries if the decision to avoid hostile propaganda against each other, again reiterated at the latest foreign secretaries' meeting, is sincerely implemented.
The reference in last month's joint statement to the people of the two countries being at the heart of the matter ought to be interpreted broadly. The rights and interests of the people cannot be adequately respected by taking care of cases of extreme distress only; the entire body of people has non-negotiable rights. Demolition of visa restrictions will help normalisation of relations better than the settlement of this dispute or that.
The initiatives that will enable the governments of Pakistan and India to rise to the expectations of the subcontinent's peace-loving people are beyond the resources of secretaries, perhaps even ministers. They become active only when they receive signals from above. The principal task before the forthcoming ministerial meeting therefore should be to plan for an India-Pakistan summit, preferably before the end of the year. The top leaders of the two countries should not be asked to wrestle with the long-pending issues, for they are unlikely to disappear in the near future; they should only be required to tell their administrations to get going on the road to peace and cooperation.
It order to ensure a successful summit, the leaders of the two governments must ensure that while plans for normalising India-Pakistan relations are implemented both sides eschew the use of force in Kashmir in any form in a bid to supplant the will of its people and that Pakistan's determination to curb terrorism is visible along all its borders.
It will be in Pakistan's own interest, therefore, to plan adequately for the foreign ministers' meeting. One hopes that the reported decision to promote the minister of state for foreign affairs to ministerial rank is not based on protocol considerations alone and that whoever represents Pakistan the message from this side will be a determination to break with all confrontationist postures and chart a new course in its relations with India.