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Is the army truly on board?

November 23, 2011


OF late, the on-again-off-again India-Pakistan relationship has entered one of its constructive phases. This comes as a happy development at a time when Pakistan’s partnership with the US is in the doldrums and Afghanistan continues to pose a dilemma.

It appears that the civilian government in Islamabad is trying to call the shots. After a number of diplomatic encounters on the sidelines of international conferences, the two countries have decided to proceed formally with the post-Mumbai phase of their composite dialogue.

Since early this year, a number of secretary-level talks have been held between the two countries. The two foreign ministers have also met and trade is to receive a boost after Pakistan decided to grant the MFN status to New Delhi.

This, as always, gives rise to hope. This is, however, nothing new, for people-to-people ties have been good ever since the second track was launched in the 1990s and the unofficial leaders of public opinion on both sides took matters into their own hands. Although they have not succeeded in changing official policy as it was hoped they would, it cannot be denied that their presence and personal friendships have tempered the relationships of the two states in times of crisis.

Against this backdrop, it was reassuring to have in our midst Mani Shankar Aiyar calling on the two governments to institute “an uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue”. Mani Shankar who has worn many hats — at one time he was India’s consul general in Karachi, the Indian foreign secretary, external affairs minister and is now a member of the Rajya Sabha — is above all a vocal champion of India-Pakistan peace. Last week, he spoke at two seminars in Karachi lending weight to the growing desire of Pakistanis to mend fences with India.

Aiyar, who has numerous friends in Pakistan, has some basic contentions that appeal to many peace-loving men and women. History cannot be reversed so it must be accepted and we must proceed from there. It is time we accepted the basic principle that there can be unity in diversity and an attempt to impose unity on people who are diverse in many ways can actually divide them. According to him, a common history, civilisation affinities and geo-strategic factors create the need for the two countries to normalise their relations.

On numerous occasions, Mani Shankar Aiyar has stressed the importance of a dialogue between Islamabad and New Delhi that should not be interrupted come what may. The first time I heard him formulate this proposal was at Caux’s human security forum in 2009 where Raj Mohan Gandhi, another champion of India-Pakistan peace, had invited people from both sides for a dialogue.

Aiyar is very categorical on this score. The two sides should hold weekly meetings that must be held even when their relations go through a rough patch. To pre-empt the forestalling of a scheduled session, he suggests that the talks be held on a fixed day of the week on the Wagah-Attari border and the table be placed in such a way that the delegations of the two sides seat themselves on their own territory. He cites the examples of the Panmunjom talks on the Korean armistice and the Paris peace talks on Vietnam to provide a format to be emulated.

This is an eminently sensible idea. It is now widely felt in Pakistan and perhaps also in India, that the barriers to peace are not erected by the people of the two countries. The policymakers, armed forces and foreign offices are the real culprits. Their mistrust of one another, hairsplitting on the commas and full stops in the text of documents and paranoiac concern to safeguard their security have made peacemaking a challenge for both sides.

Sometimes one even gets the impression that there are vested interests in our armed forces who would prefer to have a no-war but no-peace relationship with India to justify Pakistan’s massive defence spending that leaves nothing for the development of the people in this cash-strapped country. Perceived enemies behind every bush create the pretext for them to nuclearise their arsenals.

That is one reason the peacemakers have failed to win peace even when it has seemed to be within reach. Will it be any different this time? There is hope. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Mr Gilani a man of peace. But more than that he also said that the Pakistan Army is on board this time.

One wonders if ‘memogate’ will give a new dimension to the peace process. A statement from Gen Ashfaq Kayani rather than one from Manmohan Singh about the army being on board would have been infinitely more reassuring. We know that the country faces an economic crunch which could cause a shortfall in the army’s resources as well. Has that led to a change of stance in GHQ in Rawalpindi? After all, any general worth his salt would know that to fight on many fronts at the same time does not make for good strategy.

Does that also mean that once the aid starts to flow in the armed forces may do an about-turn to become the game spoilers vis-à-vis India? Our best bet would be for the peacemakers to install strong structures for a dialogue and create the momentum for peace in such a way that they cannot be broken even when the sun stops shining. That is why Mani Shankar Aiyar’s suggestion for “an uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue” is so important.