In what has become an established tradition, at midnight on 14 August peace activists from India and Pakistan lit candles at Wagah as a mark of solidarity and a symbol of peace. At the same place a few days earlier, following a diplomatic tit-for-tat, an Indian embassy official returned home after being expelled on spying charges. The Pakistani diplomat, for his part, took the flight back to Islamabad from Delhi after being declared persona non grata.
Step by step, we are seeing an unravelling of what is known as the ‘composite dialogue’ between India and Pakistan. The powder keg of populist nationalist politics is easily lit by terrorist acts, and when this happens and the media grabs onto the story, there is little that otherwise responsible diplomats and politicians on either side can do but go with the flow.
The Bombay blasts, which followed the Benaras temple bombing and the New Delhi market terror, have effectively brought public diplomacy between Islamabad and New Delhi to a halt. Conservative commentators in both countries are suddenly in high demand on television shows and newspaper columns, and they question the logic of the peace process. We dare say that the Indian and Pakistani intelligentsia and diplomatic echelons had better brace themselves for more blasts. Because it seems that the militants responsible for brutalising the innocent will do everything to destroy the peace process. Let us not succumb to this all-too-obvious plan, and let terror get the upper hand.
In a very real sense, Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh are on the same side when it comes to wanting peace with the other country, and not wanting the militants to wreck the peace process. Look at it this way: seen from a New Delhi perspective, President Musharraf has the right ‘enemies’ – as proven by the fact that the groups India has accused the president of harbouring have in fact been those that have attempted to assassinate him.
The realisation that both governments face a common challenge, from radical militant organisations, must begin to form a platform on which the peace process can be rebuilt. Dare we say that such a platform will be more powerful than a peace process predicated only upon the ethical demands of good-neighbourliness? Once this is accepted, India and Pakistan can help each other – not merely in terms of intelligence-sharing, but by creating space for the other to take the détente forward.
As things stand, the Indian establishment feels that Pervez Musharraf has not lived up to his word, by allowing militants to use Pakistani soil for anti-Indian activities. While some New Delhi commentators argue that the top echelons of the Pakistani state, including President Musharraf himself, are complicit in the process, this is not the kind of hearsay on which South Block should base its all-important Pakistan policy. More believable is the suggestion that the General is in a vulnerable position politically: opposition is mounting from a pro-democracy alliance; discontent in certain provinces is apparent; and the border with Afghanistan is in turmoil.
There is a strong sense in Pakistan – both within the government and in the media – that India has not responded adequately to the unprecedented flexibility shown by Islamabad, especially on the Kashmir issue. From giving up the demand for implementation of UN resolutions on Kashmir, to implicitly accepting the notion of soft borders, Islamabad has moved away from its maximalist position and offered several proposals to deal with the dispute. Moreover, despite the non-resolution of the Kashmir issue – which was earlier held up as a pre-condition for progress on talks – Pakistan has engaged with India on several other issues as outlined in the composite dialogue.
To give credit where it is due, India too has shown some degree of accommodation. Prime Minister Singh’s formulation about making borders irrelevant, and constituting institutional arrangements between the two parts of Kashmir, are bold proposals and have created the right atmosphere. But it is also true that senior officials in New Delhi feel that all they need to do is bide their time on Kashmir and the issue will lose steam. The reluctance of the Indian state to engage in substantial negotiations is taking its toll on the peace process.
It is important that Pakistan show concrete results in terms of curbing militant activities, but beyond that India has a responsibility to look at the situation more objectively than it has. New Delhi must take into account the domestic sentiment in Pakistan (which doubts Indian sincerity), and how that would limit President Musharraf’s flexibility. In a situation where President Musharraf is receiving few concessions from the Indian side – or is seen to be getting nothing at all – he cannot succeed in his attempt to corner the very groups that Islamabad has nurtured for decades.
It is only when India engages in dialogue on concrete issues, and implements policies that reflect a softening of stance vis-à-vis Kashmir, that the general will have the credibility to convince the Pakistani political class of the utility of cracking down on militant outfits. And when that happens, the Indian government will have the space to carry on with the process, undaunted by occasional, venal terror attacks.
As we see it, rather than use the Bombay blasts – and doubtless more blasts to come – to scuttle talks, New Delhi should come forward with novel initiatives that will strengthen the General’s hand to crack down on militant activities and camps in Pakistan. On this matter, the two sides are on the same side.