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04 April, 2011

Opening up relations

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Days after the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan gave a kick-start to stalled relations between the two countries at a summit on the sidelines of the World Cup cricket semi-final at Mohali, a question is already in the air: can the spirit of camaraderie generated there prevail over the long-standing animosities?

Manmohan Singh took the initiative for the summit as soon as the semi-final fixture became known, unmindful of the jingoistic build-up which accompanies cricket matches between the two countries. Yousuf Raza Gilani’s swift, positive response suggests the Pakistani leadership shares his desire to put India-Pakistan ties on an even keel.

Relations between India and Pakistan have been on roller-coaster since they emerged as free nations as the British divided and quit the subcontinent in 1947. In the first 25 years of existence they fought three wars, two of them over Kashmir. Since then nearly four decades have passed without a war. Since 2003 the guns have been silent even on the icy heights of Siachen, which has witnessed skirmishes from time to time. The period of conflict has left more vivid memories than the period of comparative quiet.

A serious peace process, which began in 2004 with emphasis on trust building, was still on when Pakistan-based terrorists struck Mumbai on November 26, 2008. India was exasperated by Pakistan’s unwillingness or inability to meet its demand for action against terror groups which it believed were behind the attack.

While the situation precipitated by the Mumbai carnage — 166 persons, including several foreigners, were killed in the attack — was not conducive to continuance of the peace process, responsible sections on both sides knew all along that there can be no solution to outstanding problems except through talks. Accordingly, efforts to resume the peace process were initiated last year.

A new road map for dialogue was drawn up at official-level talks held in February. It provides for discussion of a number of issues including Kashmir, terrorism and trade. A meeting of Home Secretaries had already been scheduled when the prime ministers met and gave a boost to the process.

The Mohali summit is a personal triumph for Manmohan Singh, whom a US diplomat put down as ineffective in a leaked WikiLeaks cable. At a time when he is under pressure domestically in the light of exploding scandals, he has demonstrated that he has the capacity to act in a statesmanlike manner on a sensitive matter.

Credit is due in equal measure to Pakistan’s civilian government which took the proffered hand of friendship. The message from Mohali is that while internal problems may cramp the style of the political leadership on both sides and limit their freedom of action they remain committed to development of good-neighbourly relations.

Even as the prime ministers were meeting at the cricket stadium, Indian security personnel picked up a Pakistan high commission driver who was found in an unauthorised area not far from there. As word of the incident reached Islamabad, Pakistani security personnel picked up an Indian high commission driver in apparent reprisal.

While the matter ended with the release of the two men, the incident served as a reminder of not only the fragile nature of the ties but also the tendency towards knee-jerk reactions on both sides which can imperil the peace process at any time.

Although new generations with no personal experience of the traumatic days of partition have come up in India and Pakistan, the Establishment on both sides is weighed down by political baggage dating back to the years of acrimony.

As Prime Minister, AB Vajpayee, leader of the Hindu rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party was in a position to deal with Pakistan without fear of attracting the charge of appeasement, and he made a bold but unsuccessful attempt to improve relations between the two countries. The circumstances in Pakistan are more favourable now than in Vajpayee’s time inasmuch as the country has a civilian government which is not as dependent upon communal elements for survival as the militant rulers of the recent past were.

With the best of will, leaders on both sides can only hasten slowly. Carefully drawn-up measures are needed to reinforce the new-found faith in bilateral talks, which was evident at Mohali. Manmohan Singh’s reported offer to his Pakistani counterpart to evolve a cooperative strategy to deal with the highly uncertain regional and global environment opens up the possibility of fashioning the relationship between the two countries on a new basis. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 4, 2011.

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