It is clear that, for the sake of their own people, Pakistan and India need to work together to create a stable, tension-free region. Without this, there can be no real hope of an escape from desperate economic woes, militancy and other problems, which blight the lives of people in the two countries. Islamabad and New Delhi are inching closer to holding talks, with India’s new Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh hinting at initiating dialogue with the new PML-N government in Islamabad. What is welcome is the stance that India’s neighbours would be her immediate policy priority.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is, of course, eager to have his government restart the dialogue that was suspended, first after the Mumbai attacks and recently again in January after skirmishes erupted along the Line of Control that resulted in deaths of soldiers on both sides of the border. On August 1, he reiterated his call for improving ties with our eastern neighbour and for resolving outstanding disputes with it and boosting bilateral trade, investment and business. While scepticism remains on what will be achieved at this point, with Indian elections coming up next year, the fact is that any progress would help, especially with regards to doing away with confusions regarding pre-conditions to talk. All this is important, given that the US pullout from Afghanistan next year is expected to reconfigure regional dynamics.
It is also clear that the push has to come from different directions to reach this point. Government-level talks are, of course, important, and in this context, the commitments made by prime ministers Sharif and Manmohan Singh, since the PML-N government took office in June this year, are encouraging. Both men have made it clear that they are eager to normalise relations.
At the same time, the peace process can also be aided by talks at the Track-II or ‘non-official’ level. This has indeed been acknowledged by Mr Sharif. Track II dialogues in recent months, including one in Bangkok earlier this month, where delegations from India and Pakistan, including parliamentarians, activists, former diplomats, retired military officers, journalists and policy experts meet, have raised various issues and given several important recommendations.
They have suggested, for example, that the functioning of the ministerial-level India-Pakistan Joint Commission, set up in 1983, be reviewed, so that working groups could meet regularly as laid down in the original plan. They have also stressed on the need to work together against terrorism, and for a stable, Afghan-led Afghanistan, after the upcoming US pull-out from that country. These are pointers government policymakers need to take on board as they resume the process of bilateral dialogue.
There are, of course, many areas of potential difficulty between the two states. These should not be allowed to impede routine affairs, including contact between the people of the two countries. To promote this, more effort to promote group tourism in line with previous discussions between New Delhi and Islamabad, and also more contact between students, legislators, journalists and others was suggested. For this, a more relaxed visa regime, with an easier visa protocol and permits that allowed multi-city travel are essential. It should be noted the visa issue had previously been discussed officially and agreement reached to make travel across the border easier. However, India, unfortunately, stalled on the agreement — hindering access to each other’s countries. Such backtracking needs, of course, to be avoided in the future, so that the iron fence which still stands at the border between the two nations can be gradually dismantled.
To ease this process and end a 66-year period of distancing, participants also stated that private airlines should be allowed to operate, mobile phone communications improved, trade expanded and human rights issues, such as the detention of fishermen crossing waters revisited. All this is, of course, important. Track-II talks can help build the platform for government-level dialogue, and PM Sharif’s statement that he plans to appoint an envoy to move the Track-II process further shows an awareness of this.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 4th, 2013.
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