The cancellation of the National Security Adviser (NSA) talks scheduled to be held on August 23-24 in New Delhi is yet another manifestation of the flawed dynamics of the diplomatic status quo between Pakistan and India. During the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Ufa in July, Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi agreed upon the need to open a line of dialogue that would cover all immediate and long-standing issues between the two neigbours. Immediately after the agreement, Sartraj Aziz, the Pakistani NSA, stated that the mere omission of the word Kashmir is in no way a negation of the significance the government of Pakistan attaches to the Kashmir dispute, and no dialogue between the two countries would take place without the inclusion of the Kashmir issue.
Statements from both sides, hyped up by a jingoistic media, kept the suspense building up, with there being expectations that preconditions would be toed by the other side. Finally, two press conferences by Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and the Pakistani NSA sealed the fate of the doomed-from-the-start talks. In the context of the blatant hostility between two nuclear-armed states, the refusal to accommodate each other’s pre-conditions is a bad omen. The biggest casualty of the no-talks status quo are the civilian and military lives on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC), and in the backdrop of frequent cross-border firing, the churlish obstinacy of the political leadership is darkening the bloodied line dividing the two Kashmirs.
Pakistan and India share a geographical proximity that makes a refusal to even initiate a dialogue an absurdity, underscored by the ever-changing dynamics of regional and international diplomatic realities. While expecting the two to become friends may appear to be wishful thinking, but to attain a sustainable level of civility to underline all present and future interactions is not an unrealistic expectation. Pakistan and India may not have parity in terms of geography, population, resources and economic aspirations, but there is no denying the allure of the prospect of development of millions of Pakistanis and Indians, living in a part of the world where the issues of poverty, healthcare, education, employment and unequal distribution of opportunities reign supreme. An inordinate amount of taxpayers’ money should not be spent protecting borders, but on building up our respective nations. The need to have a mechanism where cross-border firing becomes an anomaly, not a routine, should be at top of the diplomatic agenda, and not a bullet too soon.
Now is also the time for Pakistan to readjust its policy without giving up its endorsement of the right of self-determination for Kashmiris on both sides of the LoC. Meeting the Hurriyat leaders may be a traditional exercise for Pakistani leaders visiting New Delhi, but to Indians, it is simply a repudiation of the elected government of Jammu and Kashmir. There is validity to Pakistan’s claim in recognising Kashmir as a disputed territory in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 47 and 49 and the 1972 Simla Agreement. At the same time, India is also justified in pointing towards the mandate given to elected representatives of Indian Kashmir. There may be two stakeholders, but for a certain segment of Kashmiris — probably on both sides of the LoC — the fundamental right of decision-making lies with them. The complex chess-game of Kashmir remains inundated with redundant rhetoric, constant blame game, and relentless exchange of bullets that kill Kashmiris and military personnel — Pakistani and Indian — indiscriminately. Something’s gotta give before another grave is dug to bury a victim of politics.
The cancellation of the NSA talks is a stark sign of puerile politics that are delineated within fault lines drawn by domestic narratives, electoral bravado of incumbent parties, sloganeering of hardliners and warmongers, and shrill sabre-rattling of jingoistic media. The meeting of NSAs Aziz and Ajit Doval, where the dossiers of allegations of terror on both sides were to be exchanged, did not take place, and the consequence is the deterioration of an already fragile non-relationship, affecting lives on both sides of the LoC. A dialogue on terror may be the first step towards the initiation of a long-term composite dialogue that would cover all outstanding issues, Sir Creek, water disputes, Siachen, and the fundamental one: Kashmir. The acts of terror may be random, conducted by fringe elements, or non-state actors, but the onus of responsibility, directly or indirectly, falls on the country the alleged or convicted perpetrators originate from. The raison d’etre of the enmity may be Kashmir, but before getting to the point of resolving that issue, there is no escaping the first step: start talking. Without any ifs and buts.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 28th, 2015.
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