India-Pakistan ties set to improve, slowly

15 January 2007
India and Pakistan have resumed their bilateral dialogue. Progress is slow, but they are at least commencing serious negotiations on the Kashmir issue for first time since 1964, writes Praful Bidwai.
India and Pakistan have resumed their bilateral dialogue in earnest and will hold the next (fourth) round of talks in two months’ time following a meeting of their bilateral “joint commission” in February. However, progress in improving mutual relations is likely to be slow, especially on the thorny issue of Kashmir. India’s Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee made his maiden visit to Pakistan last weekend. During the visit, the first one by an Indian Minister of External Affairs in 15 months, Mukherjee met his counterpart Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri and had a 70-minute tete-a-tete with President Pervez Musharraf. The visit was high on atmospherics, but expectedly low on results. Technically, its purpose was to deliver an invitation to the Pakistani Head of State to attend the planned summit meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in April in New Delhi. But Mukherjee also reviewed progress in recent negotiations on bilateral issues. The visit took place against the backdrop of Afghanistan's fast-deteriorating security situation and Pakistan’s plans to fence its border with it, amid signs of India-Pakistan rivalry in that country. But it is unclear if Mukherjee discussed the issue in Islamabad. Although the visit produced no breakthrough, it sent out positive signals on many issues: India and Pakistan’s willingness to give shape to a “joint anti-terrorism mechanism” that they agreed to set up, relaxation of the existing tight visa regime, agreements to reduce the risk of nuclear accidents, and acceleration of “back-channel” talks on Kashmir. India and Pakistan also made some advance by agreeing to ensure “humane treatment” of each other’s detained nationals and set up a committee comprising retired senior judges to visit jails in the two countries. Both sides were emphatic that war and conflict are not an option. “Both Pakistan and India are now convinced that they could not afford any more war,” Kasuri said in an interview with a TV channel. Mukherjee too invoked “commonality” and the “shared heritage” of India and Pakistan. “This commonality brings us together to resolve present crises in the spirit of understanding and amity,” he said. “There is a continuity from the past into the present, leading into the future. If we do not forget that continuity, perhaps we shall find solutions to the present problems.” Mukherjee said that if Europe could put the bitterness of war behind for economic and trade cooperation in the European Union, India and Pakistan could also resolve their differences for an enduring peace. Mukherjee’s talks have generated hope for an early resolution of two outstanding issues, ending the military confrontation at Siachen Glacier, and demarcation of the maritime boundary at Sir Creek off the Kutch coast in the Arabian Sea. Siachen, located at a height of 16,000 to 22,000 feet in the Saltoro Range of the Himalayas, is the site of the world’s highest-altitude military conflict. Since 1984, thousands of Indian and Pakistani troops have been engaged in hostile manoeuvres over rival territorial claims in this undemarcated part of the Line of Control. The two armies have sustained their confrontation at the expense of billions of dollars and the lives of hundreds of soldiers, claimed by frostbite rather than bullet injuries. India is willing to vacate the higher reaches of the Siachen Glacier, but wants the positions of the two sides to be “authenticated” before they withdraw and create a “zone of disengagement”, and possibly a “peace park”. Pakistan has long refused this demand, but it recently presented to India a “very detailed plan” or “package” for resolving the Siachen issue which, it says, meets the concerns of both sides. On Sir Creek, the two governments launched on Monday a joint survey to develop a common map and settle their competing claims. If India accepts Pakistan’s claim on the location of the boundary, it may lose about 200 square kilometres of land because the Creek has shifted eastwards since it was last surveyed. During his talks with Mukherjee, Kasuri hinted more than once that Pakistan expects Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to visit Pakistan before the SAARC summit in April—in reciprocation of Musharraf’s visit to India in April 2005. Musharraf is reluctant to attend the SAARC summit. And Mukherjee at the last moment delivered the invitation to Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. “Singh would like to visit Pakistan only when substantial progress has been made on a number of issues”, says Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a professor of international studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University here. “And that depends in large measure on the fulfilment of past commitments and on hammering out a solution to the Kashmir problem.” India and Pakistan agreed three years ago to reopen consulates in Karachi and Mumbai, which were closed down 14 years ago. They are yet to do so. Equally tardy is the implementation of their promise to create a South Asian Free Trade Area, which was supposed to have come into being a year ago. “The SAFTA issue can wait until Pakistan feels confident that Indian goods won’t inundate its markets,” says Chenoy. “There is of course a strong case for India unilaterally opening its market to Pakistan. That aside, the two governments must immediately complete the process of opening their consular offices. That would save a lot of trouble for divided families in Karachi and Mumbai, who are compelled to visit the two countries’ capitals and camp there for days to get visitors’ visas. Easier visas are part of the agenda of promoting people-to-people contacts, which both governments endorse”. However, what of the fraught issue of Kashmir? Since they began their dialogue three years ago, India and Pakistan have narrowed their differences over Kashmir, but they are not yet ready to clinch a solution. “The Kashmiri people are extremely expectant, to put it mildly”, says Mohammed Yusuf Tarigami, a Srinagar-based activist and legislator, who has been working for a peaceful negotiated solution to Kashmir. “There is a strong sentiment in Indian Kashmir in favour of a solution along the lines that Musharraf recently proposed, and which Singh appears to be inclined to discuss. The four-point formula could create self-government structures in Kashmir and soft borders across while there will be free movement of people. That could substantially meet Kashmiri aspirations for autonomy and self-rule.” However, the two governments do not share definitions of “autonomy” or “self-governance”. Adds Tarigami: “They will have to engage in serious negotiations to flesh out and agree on these concepts. They must also bring their domestic political opponents on board.” That won’t be easy. But one precondition for success is the association of the Kashmiri people’s representatives in India-Pakistan talks. Both governments are consulting civil society and political leaders from the two parts of Kashmir. The All-Parties’ Hurriyat Conference in Indian Kashmir is sending a delegation to Islamabad. However, a minority of Kashmiris oppose the peace process. They registered their violent protest on Monday by bombing the house of Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. Yet, wide consultations, coupled with back-channel discussions between Singh’s special envoy S.K. Lambah and Musharraf’s representative Tariq Aziz could lay the basis for a negotiated Kashmir solution acceptable to both India and Pakistan. As of now, the shape of a likely solution is not clear. But it's clear that India and Pakistan are seriously negotiating the Kashmir issue for the first time since 1963-64. Mukherjee’s visit, and the likelihood of bilateral agreements to be signed over the next couple of months, give greater room for optimism.