The recent escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan comes in the midst of an uninterrupted two-year peace process, during which the countries made substantial progress towards burying the hatchet and moving on. For many cynics, hawks, and naysayers on both sides, the events of 2012 were alarming. Beyond the regular continuation of high-level parleys, three concrete achievements were made to improve bilateral relations.
First, the hardline position on terrorism and the Jammu and Kashmir dispute by both India and Pakistan was pushed and amended to achieve an atmosphere conducive to dialogue. India showed flexibility on its rigid position on the ghastly Mumbai attacks of 2008; and Pakistan showed maturity in admitting that Pakistani citizens had crossed into India and were part of the larger plan to cause mayhem in Mumbai. More importantly, the festering dispute of Jammu and Kashmir was relegated to one of the more difficult issues to be dealt in the future.
Secondly, Pakistan did the unthinkable by announcing it would grant the Most-Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India for the purposes of trade. There has been satisfactory progress on this front during 2012, with trade liberalisation already underway and generating higher stakes into the peace process.
Finally, the visa accord signed between India and Pakistan meant that the cold war culture created and perpetuated by both the states since 1965 was overcome. In particular, visa liberalisation for businessmen, setting up of banks in both the countries and allowing investments were historic landmarks.
By the end of 2012, it was believed that a new beginning had been made and the peace process was immune to the cyclical shocks, which are embedded in history and the culture of this region. However, the start of 2013 belied this optimism and the incidents on the Line of Control (LoC) have once again pushed the two countries into an uncertain phase where future bilateral cooperation and confidence-building seems jeopardised.
Firing across the LoC has resulted in the deaths of both Pakistani and Indian soldiers. This comes as a serious blow to the bilateral peace process. For nearly a month, escalation has continued with confrontation being managed by the two governments, which have shown some measure of restraint but allowed non-state institutions such as the media to blow things of out of proportion. This is truer for the Indian side where sections of the media, especially television channels, sensationalised the LoC crisis, thereby undermining the efforts of the Indian government to not let the crisis get out of control.
Several sane voices in India itself are agitating the issue. For instance, Amitabh Mattoo, also an active member of the Track-II initiatives, wrote: “… India’s Pakistan policy is far too important to be left to TV anchors, with their wars over TRPs and their penchant to appeal, often, to the lowest common denominator of public opinion. Indeed strident debates in the Indian media — frightening in their Manichaean simplicity — reflect a total lack of appreciation of the intricacies of the Gordian knot of bilateral relations” (No real business plan, Hindustan Times, January 16, 2013).
But that is perhaps a reflection of the ‘national confusion’ that exists in India over Pakistan complicated by the communal question, that is, the nationalist narrative which views Pakistan as a historical ‘aberration’. Pakistan’s existential angst is defined by India though it is undergoing a historic shift due to years of flawed security and foreign policies, and the associated misgovernance within the country. Herein lies an opportunity for India to engage and help Pakistan, which plays into its own interest of developing a peaceful and stable region. However, short term considerations have always overshadowed the need for long range policy vision.
Pakistan and its media were embroiled in internal political turmoil when the war drums were being beaten across the border. A rapidly urbanising country with increased civilian space is grappling with a state that has moved from one crisis to another and is now haunted by its own jihadi assets. It would be a gross exaggeration to say that the Pakistan military is following the business-as-usual approach with respect to India, given its tacit support to the elected government in nurturing the peace process in the recent past. Perhaps cynicism on the Indian side about Pakistan runs deeper than we know.
Having said that, the peace constituency in Pakistan has grown and solidified. Despite the recent skirmishes and cooling off, the political parties are not repeating the old tactic of one-upmanship on India policy. The politicians, smarter than never before, know that they would be playing into the hands of martial lobbies if they made conflict with India a populist cause.
The unprecedented consensus on peace with India is acknowledged by the neighbour, but not fully appreciated for its historic nature. Pakistan’s political parties of almost all varieties, big business, its media and civil society, are united in their resolve not to squander this historic opportunity.
A decade ago, it would be unthinkable to write the way Pakistan’s senior editor M Ziauddin wrote on January 23 (An ‘unpatriotic’ column, Express Tribune): “I confess that I find it almost impossible not to agree with the position taken by India’s government, its people at large and its media, generally over the recent ceasefire violations across the Line of Control (LoC). Many of my countrymen would regard me as unpatriotic for even harbouring such a thought.”
In such a political environment, India’s resolve to stay the course would be vital. It must not let political expediency or the lunatic fringes overtake its policy focus. Improving on 65 years of bitterness would not be achieved in a few years. There has to be long-term commitment and readiness to install shock absorbing measures as the trust grows gradually and not without dangerous chances of reversal.
I was part of a recently concluded Track-II dialogue (by Jinnah Institute, Pakistan and Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, India) that made some pertinent recommendations for improving the bilateral relations. The joint statement issued by legislators, former diplomats, media-persons, policy experts and academics highlighted the pending agenda which needs urgent attention. The key recommendations made were:
- “We appreciate that 2012 was a year of progress in Indo-Pak relations during which the robustness of India-Pakistan dialogue was tested and despite challenges to the process, considerable headway was made on issues of trade and visa liberalisation;
- The political question of Jammu and Kashmir remains unresolved. We urge that India and Pakistan remain engaged and the four-point formula devised in 2006-7 should be used as a basis for further dialogue;
- We urge that media be given unfettered access on both sides. The governments must allow the circulation of newspapers, distribution of television signals and increase in the number of accredited journalists in both the countries;
- We recommend that visas for journalists and their spouses should be facilitated without unnecessary delays;
- We urge both the governments to engage on the regional implications of the Nato pullout from Afghanistan in 2014 through dialogue on regional cooperation;
- We recommend that previously agreed proposals to resolve long-standing issues such as Siachen and Sir Creek should be accepted immediately so that both the countries can move forward in focusing on the core issues between the two countries;
- We note that recent incidents on the Line of Control (LoC) underline the need to reinforce the 2003 ceasefire agreement and recommend that new mechanisms be devised such as increased demilitarised zones. There is an urgent need to reduce the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation on the LoC;
- We recommend that roaming cellular facilities should be provided to the people of both the countries;We recommend that culture, sports and humanitarian concerns should be prioritised by both the countries in the bilateral parleys;
- We demand the resumption of the suspended bus service and cross-LoC trade on Poonch-Rawalakot route; the stranded passengers must be allowed to return from the same route…”
Let’s hope that dialogues in both formal and non-formal spheres continue and help the two nations manage and ultimately surpass their historical baggage. It would be unacceptable if the two countries continue to behave in an irresponsible manner. More importantly, as a Pakistani, I want my country to take the lead and immediately announce the MFN status to India and demonstrate that it means business.
Raza Rumi is a Director at Jinnah Institute. Another version of this article appeared in The News.