As Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani reaches Bhutan, there are encouraging reports he will be meeting his Indian counterpart on the sidelines of the Saarc summit. The talks between the two leaders, which Foreign Office officials confirm are indeed likely to take place, are significant; still more significant is the simple fact that the two heads of government will be sitting together at a common platform.
The occasion could signal an end to the era of tension that has persisted since the Mumbai bombings in November 2008. Foreign secretary-level talks earlier this year essentially failed to break the ice — both sides more or less blamed the other for the impasse. We must hope that the prime ministers of India and Pakistan can do better. And there is a strong ground for optimism because over the months since the Mumbai attacks, both have indicated they are eager to move on.
They have demonstrated goodwill at international gatherings whenever an opportunity has arisen to shake hands. But it seems that hardliners in India – and this is from recent media reports from within that country – for obvious reasons do not want Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to move closer to Pakistan. In fact, ever since the tragic events of 26/11 the hardliners, at least on the Indian side, have tended to dominate public discourse, so much so that the Congress-led government has had to treat Pakistan with kid gloves.
On the other side, the hardliners have also gathered some strength and the view that the Pakistan government has already done enough to absolve itself of any involvement in the Mumbai attacks is widely disseminated in the mainstream media and is a belief held by many Pakistanis. These elements also argue that it is no coincidence that the devastating attacks that killed more than 160 people came soon after President Asif Ali Zardari had spoken for the need to create a nuclear-free zone in the region.
All this goes to show that any real effort towards a lasting peace will always be held hostage to the hawks and the longer and more winding the road to peace, the stronger these hardliners will become. They have to be defeated and this can only be done by taking them on and challenging them, especially in the media. Eventually the goal should be to appropriate from them the wide space they enjoy in public discourse. The two prime ministers must find ways to ensure their influence does not hold back efforts towards a normalisation of relations.
The peace effort needs to be put back on track, not least because if it is actually realised the so-called peace dividend could be substantial. There can be no better place to do so than in the peaceful, picturesque setting of Bhutan and its strong Buddhist culture which emphasises non-violence and harmonious co-existence.
People on both sides of the border have repeatedly demonstrated they want peace. The high-profile Shoaib Malik-Sania Mirza marriage and the enthusiastic response of people on both sides of the border is one indication of this. Track-II diplomatic efforts of various kinds are another.
The peace activists who light candles at the border to mark the New Year and call for an end to acrimony must be given credit for their efforts. They help create a mindset conducive to peace. There are many examples before us of what such goodwill can achieve. The release of a teenage boy who had accidentally ridden the Samjhota Express into India and ended up in an Amritsar jail is one.
But at the same time dozens of Indians and Pakistanis remain in prison in each other’s countries, fishermen who stray continue to be detained and tough visa regimes prevent contact between people. Improving such situations is one of the benefits that can emerge from better Pakistan- India ties.