Peace breaks out in South Asia?

There seems to be a genuine thaw in the relationship between India and Pakistan, a far cry from the early days of 2002 when there was eyeball-to-eyeball military confrontation with a likelihood of use of nuclear weapons. The latest event of note was Gen Pervez Musharraf’s meeting with the visiting Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh, who was in Islamabad to attend the SAARC Ministers Conference. Despite a discordant note when the Pakistani President asked for a reasonable time-frame for the peace talks in the face of the Indians not wanting the talks to be time-constrained, there seems to be a grudging but definite mutual building of trust.

Hosting 20% of all humanity in the world, South Asia occupies only 3.3% of the global area. Despite a climate of political complexity, religious divide and ethnic polarization, significant development in some fields is a living testament to the dynamism of South Asians. Regretfully when compared to the vast population, human development is negligible, poverty being both a cause and consequence. Relations between India and her South Asian neighbors, particularly Pakistan, has often been strained, the core issue of Kashmir resulting in three wars between Pakistan and India, besides some ongoing conflicts like Siachen. With such conflicts South Asia will continue to live in poverty, backwardness and the endless sense of insecurity that goes with it. A just and durable peace between India and Pakistan is necessary for progress and development in South Asia.

India saw an opportunity after 9/11 to coerce Islamabad into complying with its demands. Soon after the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, New Delhi increased allegations of cross-border terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. With a “final solution” in mind on December 19 India launched “Operation Parakram” (valour), the largest and longest-ever mobilization of the Indian Armed Forces on Pakistan’s borders. Amidst the global “:war on terror” this threat of the use of force against Pakistan was a very deliberate move. Further increasing the pressure, New Delhi downgraded its diplomatic relations with Pakistan, ending all transportation linkages and economic relations. In an astute move Pakistan did not recall its High Commissioner, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi remaining Pakistan at his post for the next four months despite being deliberately ignored by the Indian government.

Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee offered a “hand of friendship” to Pakistan in a landmark address in April 2003 in Occupied Kashmir, this after several months of tension saw the two nuclear powers come close to war. Vajpayee said that dialogue was the only way to bring peace. Thereafter peace moves accelerated after, viz (1) October 2003 when India elaborated 12 steps to normalize relations with Pakistan (2) Pakistan responded positively, former Prime Minister Jamali announcing on November 23, 2003 a unilateral ceasefire along the Line of Control (LOC) while expressing a willingness to start a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad (3) Though suffering far more economically India had banned over-flights after the attack on its Parliament, on November 30, 2003 President Musharraf announced unilateral resumption of all flights with India (4) President Musharraf stated in December 2003 that the two countries should start a dialogue accepting the importance and centrality of the Kashmir dispute, eliminating the solutions unacceptable to Pakistan, India and the people of Kashmir, going for a solution acceptable to all parties (5) Prime Minister Vajpayee visited Pakistan on January 6, 2004 for the SAARC conference in Islamabad, holding on the sidelines one-on-one meetings with President Musharraf and PM Jamali, in a major breakthrough both countries agreed to initiate the process of a composite dialogue to resolve problems including the peaceful settlement of all issues, including Jammu and Kashmir (6) a roadmap for peace talks was agreed subsequently upon on February 18, 2004, an aggressively rapid plan for peace talks on contentious issues like Kashmir, terrorism and nuclear weapons to put a history of acrimony behind them (7) a MOU was signed on February 26, 2004 between Pakistan and Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry in New Delhi to strengthen trade, technological and industrial cooperation (8) In March 2004 India began a first full cricket tour after 14 years, sparking huge interest amongst millions of fans on both sides (9) Pakistani and Indian Military officials signed agreement on March 27, 2004 to curb cross-border smuggling, drug trafficking and illegal immigration (10) in May 2004 the new Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh took over and reiterated his commitment to the on-going peace process by pledging top priority to India-Pakistan peace talks (11) on June 2004 India and Pakistan renewed a ban on nuclear weapons tests, setting up a hot-line to alert each other to potential nuclear risks (12) Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri and his Indian counterpart Natwar Singh agreed on June 23, 2004 mutually to re-open Karachi and Bombay Consulates while restoring size of their Embassies in Delhi and Islamabad to full strength of 110 (13) a schedule for talks was announced on July 2004 with India on six of the eight subjects on the composite dialogue framework, viz (1) Wullar Barrage (2) Friendly exchange of artists, journalists and parliamentarians (3) Siachen (4) Sir Creek dispute (5) Terrorism and drug trafficking and (6) Economic and commercial cooperation.

While there is great expectancy in the air, one must be cautious. Hawkish elements on both sides of the border having a vested interest in sabotaging all moves for peace will strive to hamper the process. The leaders of India and Pakistan have recently demonstrated an extraordinary understanding of each other’s problems, the will for peace and determination thereof are more important than deterrence. The negative role played by the media, giving out versions of events that are totally wrong and unjustified, does give a cause for concern. Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) will have to be an on-going process to decrease tensions amongst farmer rivals. A continuing process of dialogue and interaction at various levels of the government will allow removal of irritants that may arise.

SAARC’s potential to live upto the expectations of the people of South Asia has been quite successful at the functional level. The 12th Summit held in Islamabad, January 4-6, 2004 resulted in better understanding among the regional countries, with all member nations realizing that this was the time for action, forward thrust and real achievements for the region breaking out of its stagnation. South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) lays the foundation of a South Asian Economic Union (SAEU) and goes a long way in increasing trade opportunities, particularly for the smaller countries in the region. SAARC must be given an added role as a mediator to resolve regional problems by mutual consent of the concerned members. Although the Association’s charter does not allow the raising of bilateral disputes at its meetings, its potential for acting as a peace broker cannot be denied.

The steps for peace in South Asia include viz (1) the pragmatism of its respective leaders initiating a process of meaningful discussions, resulting in the productive engagement between India and Pakistan dramatically changing the situation from that obtaining 30 months ago so (2) efforts for a just and fair resolution of disputes (3) facilities of safe and cheap travel by land for the people to visit each other’s country (4) and reducing the influence of hawkish elements, exercising their writ far too long they have seriously hampered many previous attempts aimed at peace in the region.

While peace in South Asia depends upon peace between India and Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are also stakeholders, their governments making collective efforts to improve their socio-economic conditions through democratic means, attempts often frustrated by the background of colonial rule and societies beset by extraordinary religious, ethnic and linguistic complexity. The extent of human deprivation in South Asia is colossal. About 260 million people lack access to rudimentary health facilities; 337 million lack safe drinking water; 830 million have no access to basic sanitation facilities and over 400 million go hungry each day. The governments of the two countries must take up the challenge and ensure that having taken the first meaningful steps towards possible durable peace, the momentum is maintained. Pragmatism, flexibility and political will can usher in a new era of peace in the region and prosperity for the impoverished millions who inhabit South Asia.