The recent private visit of President Asif Ali Zardari to India and his one-to-one meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has contributed in reducing tensions and created an opening for the leadership of the two countries to move forward. At the personal level, too, both the leaders are sincere and committed to give a fillip to the peace process. Prime Minister Singh’s statement that they are willing “to find tactical, pragmatic solutions” to all issues that have bedevilled their relationship is a demonstration of this commitment. The question arises whether this time India and Pakistan will cash on this bonhomie to start a transformational process or simply let it wither away.
States are supposed to act rationally in their dealings with one another, which regrettably has not been the norm when it comes to India-Pakistan relations. Pakistani policymakers have always maintained that normalisation of relations with India should be conditional to progress on the resolution of the Kashmir issue. For the Indians, they would like to see Islamabad take concrete steps to prevent acts of terrorism by reining in militant groups. Clearly, these are critical issues for both governments and will remain so, but by normalising relations the chances for their resolution in the long term will be higher. It is also time to shed the legacy of the three wars and several major skirmishes and military stand-offs that the two countries have been involved in. If they do not do this, they will continue to remain hostage to radical elements. Fortunately, the step taken by Pakistan to grant most-favoured nation status to India and develop commercial and economic linkages on a fast track on the so-called India-China model will indeed develop interdependence, and is in the long-term interest of both neighbours. For India, opening up of the Pakistani border for trade provides a market of nearly 200 million people.
In Pakistan, the army is already overstretched fighting militancy in the tribal areas; the country’s economy is in deep trouble and the situation in Karachi, Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan is volatile. Relations with the US face a major crisis and hence, with so many odds facing the country, it is only prudent to improve relations with India. While India keeps accusing Islamabad of not doing enough on terrorism, the reality is that containing insurgency and combating terrorism is crucial for Pakistan’s own integrity and preservation as a state.
The Indians may well argue that the rise of militancy in Pakistan is the result of its own policy of creating and using asymmetrical forces to countervail India. By seeing the problem through a narrow coloured prism, India overlooks the fact that there is still deep alienation in major parts of Kashmir and this gives rise to periodic uprisings against the state — which is then suppressed through the use of force. This in turn leads militant groups in Pakistan to support the insurgency across the border. In the past, these jihadi groups had the support of the security establishment but that policy has now changed. The jihadi elements have turned inwards and the Pakistani establishment realises the dangers inherent in supporting them.
The growing differential in power between India and Pakistan precludes any possibility that India will agree to any territorial readjustment in Kashmir. New Delhi also uses the secular card for rejecting any further partitioning of India. In the interim, the best Pakistan should expect is that the two sides could agree to soften borders between the Indian and Pakistani parts of Kashmir. The resolution of Siachen and Sir Creek is relatively easy, provided India shows some flexibility and pragmatism. The hard line taken by the Indian army on Siachen is based on narrow institutional interests and not on any strategic considerations and needs a serious rethink. In fact, the recent tragedy of Siachen is a stark reminder for resolving the issue at the earliest. It will save lives, reduce defence expenditures and prevent ecological disaster.
The Pakistan Army’s heavy commitment in fighting insurgency within the country and the general poor state of economy has made the military leadership inclined towards supporting improved relations with India. India can contribute to mitigating militancy in Pakistan and the region by reducing and pulling back its forces from the border so that Pakistani forces could focus on the western border in their fight against the TTP.
Hopefully, these opportunities will not be lost.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 17th, 2012.