Cautious Optimism

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War is not always a viable modus operandi for achieving one’s national objectives and certainly no substitute for the gains one obtains by following the path of peace. But the search for peace can be a risky proposition, it can give the wrong signals of inherent weakness to one’s opponents and invite adventurism thereof by any one party to take advantage of the perceived adverse situation of the other. A nuclear capability to offset conventional disadvantage is always a handy deterrent. One can always slide into state of war. Accusing Pakistan of sponsoring the terrorists who attacked the Indian Parliament on Dec 13, 2001, India promptly moved the bulk of its armed forces into an offensive posture facing Pakistan, the two nations stayed in a state just short of a state of war for the better part of 2002. Any trigger-happy field commander could have set off a nuclear holocaust.

It is sheer hypocrisy that SAARC’s charter does not allow bi-lateral political issues to be discussed in the regional forum, the very fact that political talks between India and Pakistan did take place make that fact rather infructuous and food for thought for the future. Our agreement for a composite dialogue with India shows clearly that we must bring political and bi-laterals for discussion and resolution by suitably amending the SAARC charter. One felt sorry for Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, potent countries with their own economic and political place under the sun in the comity of South Asia nations, because of the overwhelming world and regional diplomatic (and media) concentration on India and Pakistan issues, they seemed to be irrelevant. Not so, look at the speeches of Khalida Zia and Chandrika Kumaratunga, without their steadfast stand that unless the two great rivals in South Asia solved their mutual problems, peace which was vital for the prosperity of the smaller SAARC partner nations also, was not possible. While it is quite possible that the two countries would have missed the message of restraint and harmony being sent by many leaders from across the world, the Bangladesh and Sri Lanka leaders gently nudged the leaders of India and Pakistan into recognizing that there are other stakeholders in their regional vicinity whose destiny is tied inexorably with theirs, whether India and Pakistan choose conflict or amity.

For the peoples of both Pakistan and India, the stakes are very high. It could mean the difference between poverty and poverty alleviation. With on-going talks behind the scenes for several months since PM Vajpayee announced his famous peace initiative in April, an urgency was built up as the SAARC Summit drew near and the Indian PM confirmed he was coming to Pakistan. Despite the raising of the security stakes by the two assassination attempts on Musharraf, the brave initiative by Vajpayee in not cancelling his trip raised expectations that the SAARC Summit would achieve a breakthrough of sorts, when actually it did happen it was extremely satisfying. Whereas the official statement was devoid of rhetoric or histrionics, it was clear that Pakistan had made a major concession assuring India emphatically that Pakistani territory will not be allowed to be used for “militancy against anyone”. Since India has been calling for an end to “cross-border terrorism”, this permitted India to give a concession of its own by publicly acknowledging that the talks would cover all issues “including Jammu and Kashmir”. Brajesh Mishra, Advisor to the Indian PM on National Security, reached Pakistan 3 days before the Indian PM and had one-on-one meetings with various Pakistani officials, very significantly, including it is believed the DG ISI Lt Gen Ehsan ul Haq.

SAARC countries signed off a landmark understanding on the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) patterned loosely on the European Economic Community (EEC). In the absence of political consensus, can “economic nirvana” ever be achievable? South Asian nations have complementary economies whose potential is being wasted by conflict. While the fulfillment of this vision will certainly lead to autarky in food and critical materials, illusion will hardly become a reality unless the main contentious problems that divide the countries can be solved. Even if some working arrangement for alleviating the miseries of the Kashmiri people is agreed upon as a prelude to a final solution sometime in the distant future, the water issue between India and Pakistan on the one hand and India and Bangladesh will still remains a major problem that needs to be addressed. The population of all three countries live in delta lands fed by rivers that are increasingly short of water. If given that, India embarks on its ambitious water management plan that envisages water reservoirs, dams, inter-river linkages, etc in the immediate future the issue will become irreversible, an early mutually amicable resolution to the water issues is vitally important.

A most important issue is the immediate cessation of the propaganda war that the two countries wage against each other. At the moment India and Pakistan portray each other as demons, the net result is adverse to the image of South Asians as a whole, this results in universal vilification of our expatriates in different countries of the world. It also psyches up the masses of the two countries against each other, for starters why not give whoever made “LOC Kargil” six months rigorous hanging? One must accept that India has a better talent for propaganda than Pakistan, the result has been quite adverse for Pakistan and Pakistanis abroad. We are condemned for every reason under the sun from pillar to post, only some reasons are patently correct, most of it is disinformation or misinformation meant to malign each others as nations and as individuals. Obviously we cannot live in a situation where we are throwing muck at each other and, at least in our case, sticking. This muck-raking vitiates the atmosphere. If the present peace process has to succeed, the vicious propaganda war must cease forthwith.

A continuous composite dialogue is meant to start in February this year, there is still a need to put in place a permanent liaison mechanism for constant dialogue so that extraneous issues that can become a cause for conflict are addressed immediately before they become contentious and the respective positions of the two countries harden. The idea is to defuse tensions rather than let benign neglect makes them potentially dangerous. The two countries should set up a “Joint Dialogue Commission” (JDC) with three members each and a rotating Chairman each month. While the JDC can meet every month, the charter must include emergency meetings if and when the need arises. Given the history of India and Pakistan relations, crisis is always at hand on many issues under the sun.

South Asia is a contiguous land area bound together by language and culture, a complementary economy gives us both trade and freight advantages. Instead of engaging in conflict we need a confluence of our national objectives so that South Asian nations can operate as a confederal entity with each nation maintaining its sovereignty i.e. acting as a confederation without really being one. There is no doubt that both India and Pakistan have gambled that lowering the notches of their stated hard-line positions may be risky but the leaders of both the countries seem to believe that the risk is well worth it in the search for peace. Because we have traveled that road to collective frustration we should not unduly raise the expectations of the people to match their aspirations. Peace is the only force-multiplier to economic emancipation and prosperity for the peoples of South Asia, one must be cautiously optimistic that it may well happen in our lifetime.

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