Aman ki asha moves forward - Shafqat Mahmood - Friday, March 11, 2011

Source :

More often than not talks between Indians and Pakistanis degenerate into point- scoring. The good thing about the strategic seminars under the Aman ki Asha initiative – jointly sponsored by the Jang Group and The Times of India – is the positivity on both sides.

This was visible in the second round of the series just concluded in Karachi. While there was, like always, much to disagree on, the intent on both sides was to seek solutions. The 12-point joint declaration issued at the conclusion of the event reflected that.

An argument is sometimes made asking what difference such unofficial talks make considering that people participating in them are rarely in a position to affect state-policy. This may be true of relations between states that are not as intertwined as Pakistan and India. Public opinion is a factor between them and provides the context for formulation of state-policy. This is where unofficial exchanges and media projections play an important role.

In this particular case, the involvement of two major media groups in India and Pakistan makes the Aman ki Asha initiative more effective than other track two events. While others play an important role too in creating a better understanding between important unofficial players, the media coverage helps in moulding wider public attitudes.

This is reflected in surveys since Aman ki Asha was launched. As explained by Shahrukh Hasan, Group Managing Editor, Jang Group, public opinion surveys in both countries show that positivity has significantly increased between the people and negativity has considerably decreased. This is a huge achievement for the two media groups in just a year and makes it easy for the leaders of the respective countries to take bolder steps towards peace and normalisation.

And bold steps are needed. For too long there has been dialogue and more dialogue: front channel, back channel, and various categories of unofficial discussions, but without any significant breakthrough. Diplomats always emphasise baby steps because issues are so intractable. But babies sometimes walk in circles, which is what we seem to be doing. A significant win is required to give an impetus to the peace process.

If the purpose was not to make peace then it is another matter. But all indicators suggest that both parties understand it is in their respective national interests to seek peace and normalisation. That is the reason why the dialogue process never totally breaks down. It does go into long periods of stagnation but if the status quo – no war, no peace – was the preferred status for both sides, it would never start again.

This is obviously not the case. For a while after the Mumbai tragedy India seemed adamant only to talk to Pakistan about terrorism. But, since this was not acceptable to us, there has been a breakthrough of sorts at Thimpu. India is now ready to resume the composite dialogue process. This would not have happened if its national interest did not so dictate.

On the Pakistani side, too much has changed in the last decade. For a long time we stuck to the position that without a settlement of the Kashmir dispute, movement on other bilateral issues was not possible. The readiness on our part to participate in the composite dialogue, which covers all issues between the two countries, indicates that our national interest too dictates normalisation of relations with India.

It has taken a while, but it is good that both sides have come to this realisation. Too much is at stake for us to hold the dialogue process hostage to one issue. This does not mean giving up on what is important. A settlement of the Kashmir dispute reflecting the wishes of the Kashmiri people will remain a significant issue for Pakistan. Terrorism by groups allegedly in Pakistan will remain vital to India. But, the need to move forward on other issues has been recognised which is an important breakthrough.

While hopefully the composite dialogue process will now not stagnate, I will come back to the theme that the peace process needs some significant wins. One possibility is Siachin. On this, what divides the two countries is not a whole lot except mistrust. If Siachin is declared a demilitarised zone by both sides and sanctified by an international agency such as the UN, the withdrawal of forces can begin. It will not only result in saving lives but also precious resources being spent on this highest battlefield in the world.

A win like Siachin can give a massive boost to the peace process. It can also have an impact on the minefield of trade negotiations between the two countries. Though, what is important in the trade area, is that the business communities of both countries want it.

Yes, the Pakistanis have concerns about non-tariff barriers, which essentially means holding up Pakistani goods for interminable inspections, and the Indians complain about not getting the most favoured nation status – a facility that Pakistan has given to many countries. These are not insurmountable obstacles. Through goodwill, they can be overcome. The trick is to involve the business communities and let them resolve the issues.

This can only happen if the business communities of the two countries can interact easily. The visa regimes put in place by both India and Pakistan are shocking in this day and age. Security procedures mean interminable waits and often denials. Those lucky to get visas are confined to one or two cities and invariably required to report to the police. This is archaic and provides no deterrence with regard to real terrorists. All this must change.

The one clear and present danger to the peace process is another Mumbai-like terrorist attack in India. Pakistan is itself a victim of terrorism and cannot control or prevent every non-state actor from operating in other parts of the world. This India must understand and educate its people about.

It would be foolish to make peace between two countries hostage to terrorist organisations. This will in itself be an impetus to them to take desperate measures knowing that they have such power over the destinies of a billion and a half people. One can only hope and pray that something like Mumbai does not happen again but if it does, India should not exhibit a knee-jerk response and blame Pakistani state organisations.

As the recent investigations of Samjotha Express and some other terror incidents have shown, India has a serious homegrown militancy problem. Therefore, every incident must be evaluated carefully. Even if the trail leads to a Pakistani organisation, it calls for cooperation between the two countries not threats of war.

There is much to be done between the two states but we must learn from what is happening around the world. Concepts of sovereignty are being redefined to bring old enemies together in economic zones. South Asia remains a global backwater and the most restrictive trade area in the world.

The future of our people depends on peace between India and Pakistan. We must move forward to grasp it.


No comments:

Post a Comment