The most significant peace process in Southasia has hit a stalemate. After remarkable progress, the India-Pakistan rapprochement appears to have slipped down in the policymakers’ priorities. The fact that a six-decade-long embittered relationship has gradually transformed into one of relative peace over the past three years is an achievement. But this should make no one complacent. Fundamental issues remain unresolved; the momentum is dissipating; and in the absence of progress, extremists of all stripes and categories will gain strength.
To be fair, critical domestic political issues have come to the fore on both sides, taking attention away from the peace process, and limiting the appetite for political risk on both sides. General Pervez Musharraf is facing the most severe crisis of his tenure, his troubles mounting with the latest Supreme Court ruling allowing his arch rival former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, to return to the country after seven years in exile. Meanwhile, the Indian political class is trying to save its own government. Before this, it was busy with important elections in Uttar Pradesh (where the ruling party fared miserably) and then in choosing a president.
However, lack of time can be neither a justification nor an adequate explanation for the lack of progress in the bilateral relationship. Rather, it is the absence of political will on both sides to push ahead and build on past achievements. In the past, the leadership has been able to push the envelope, and come up with out-of-the-box solutions. Pakistan has given up on UN resolutions that it had harped on for decades, and has also told militants in Kashmir that they should not expect complete support from Islamabad. They were advised by the general to come to the negotiating table. India has accepted, for all purposes, that Kashmir is a dispute; it has, even if sporadically, begun negotiations with Kashmiri groups. Both Manmohan Singh and General Musharraf have agreed that the solution lies not in redrawing boundaries but in making the Line of Control a soft border – allowing interaction, and devolving more power to Kashmiris on both sides.
We had, in these pages, said that 2007 could be the “year of Kashmir”: there is momentum, public support, and the political space for the leadership on both sides to think of a bold solution. On a positive note, it is heartening that there are not many signs of the situation descending back into violent conflict. But time is running out. With governments in both countries in weak positions compared to the past, their ability to dare to innovate has become increasingly limited. The media and civil society, rather than hide behind the cover of easy nationalism, can help by bringing issues related to the peace process back on the national agenda, and showing that the peace constituency is alive and, in fact, growing. Both governments need to start talking more. The backchannel communication on Kashmir, which has made progress, needs to be energised. In the 60th year of Independence, the best gift for the people of India and Pakistan would be a stronger peace process – one that makes progress on some of the most contentious issues of our times.