Time for difficult issues

It has been three years since then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced his willingness to launch a fresh round of talks with Pakistan. A year ago, Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh, enthused by the dialogue's progress, termed the peace process 'irreversible'. Indeed, there has been a drastic transformation in bilateral ties during this period, to the benefit of all Southasians. The truce has survived militant attacks, past hostility and fundamental policy differences between the two sides. To maintain the momentum, however, what is needed now is intensified negotiations and visible progress on contentious issues. We must move from absence of war towards peace.

There have been attempts at building peace between these estranged umbilical neighbours in the past. This current phase, however, is clearly different, with a confluence of factors pushing New Delhi and Islamabad to talk with one another. Popular sentiment, American pressure on both sides to negotiate, the realisation in Pakistan that a proxy war with India is neither strategically nor economically prudent, New Delhi's understanding that having peace at its borders is a prerequisite for attaining greater status – all have contributed to the current rapprochement.

Two rounds of composite dialogue over a range of issues – including security, trade, culture and terrorism – have resulted in a greater understanding on both sides of reciprocal positions. The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad, Rajasthan-Sindh, and the recently inaugurated Amritsar-Nankana road and rail links have revived ties between crossborder communities and facilitated people-to-people contact.

On the core issue of Kashmir, both sides have shown some flexibility. Five crossing points at the Line of Control were opened up in the wake of the Kashmir Earthquake of October 2005. Pakistan has given up demands to implement the UN resolutions, dating back to 1948, while India has acknowledged Kashmir as an issue up for discussion. Providing a further opening for progress on the issue is Manmohan Singh's contention that, while borders cannot be re-drawn, they can be made irrelevant.

Despite these credible achievements, however, the peace process seems to have reached a stalemate on several important fronts. There is a feeling in Pakistan, even among moderate and liberal elements, that New Delhi has not done enough, especially on Kashmir. South Block has also not responded to several of President Musharraf's proposals on Kashmir, including that of self-governance. Islamabad fears that India's preference for the status quo means that it is biding its time, hoping that the dispute will lose steam. For its part, India claims that Islamabad has not delivered on its promise to stop 'crossborder terrorism'.

The fact that there has been no recent high-profile summit or joint statement outlining areas of agreement has not helped matters either. The last meeting between President Musharraf and Prime Minister Singh – in New York in September 2005, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting ­was frosty, with Pakistan demanding the demilitarisation of three districts in Jammu & Kashmir, which India flatly rejected. Little is known of the back-channel diplomacy between the special envoys – India's S K Lambah and Pakistan's Tariq Aziz – nor whether there has been any breakthrough on that front.

Public review needed

It is against this backdrop of mixed achievement that a review of the peace process must be undertaken. Manmohan Singh's recent proposal of a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Pakistan is a welcome step. However, we believe it is crucial for New Delhi to realise that till they address the Kashmir issue, neither peace nor friendship with either Pakistan or the Kashmiri people will be possible. The status quo is clearly not acceptable to other stakeholders. Instead, imperative moves include: a reduction of troops, a strict check on human-rights violations, more power allotted to Kashmiris, liberalising movement at the Line of Control, and a continuous engagement with Pakistan.

On the other hand, though sections of the military establishment in Pakistan admit that the politics of violence in Kashmir has outlived its utility, the crackdown on militant groups has been limited. And as long as militants continue to strike with support from across the border, there will be resistance in New Delhi to any concessions. Islamabad must also know that neither an independent Kashmir nor one that is a part of Pakistan is feasible.

Pragmatism dictates that both sides operate within this broad framework. Such a complex problem can only be resolved through intensified diplomatic negotiations between the two neighbours, with the participation of Kashmiri representatives. Skirting the issue or holding sporadic talks can only be harmful for the prospects of peace in the region.

In addition, to combat the impression that the peace process might be losing steam, and to sustain the optimism among the people, it is important for Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf to engage in some high-profile personal diplomacy. A long-overdue visit by the prime minister to Pakistan and an agreement on an issue like Siachen — the contours of which are reported to be ready — would indeed be an ideal boost for India-Pakistan ties at this juncture.

Given past experience, the fact that the peace process has lasted is a remarkable achievement in itself. For the sake of the people of the region, however, it is now time for India and Pakistan to build on that success through greater flexibility on the remaining stumbling blocks.

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