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India and Pakistan, living up to low expectations

Jul 17, 14:17 EDT
Hopes of progress were low when the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan met in Islamabad last week and the two sides lived up to expectations, disagreeing on how to move their relationship forward and blaming each other for souring the mood. 

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Pakistan took exception to the timing of remarks by the Indian Home Secretary on the eve of the talks accusing the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency of involvement in the November 2008 attack on Mumbai.  India objected to comments made by Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi comparing those remarks to anti-India speeches given by Hafez Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group blamed for Mumbai.  Qureshi complained his counterpart repeatedly took instructions from Delhi during their talks, an accusation that Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna denied.

Signs are, however, that the mood is steadying and the two countries are trying to put the acrimony behind them.

Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said Pakistan wanted good relations with India and both sides were sincere in improving ties. Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, the country’s top diplomat, also stressed in interviews with television channel NDTV and with CNN-IBN that the process of dialogue must continue.  “I think in diplomacy, as in life, disappointments such as these needs to be surmounted, because as neighbours India and Pakistan will have to deal with each other,” she said. “We don’t have the luxury of maintaining irresolvable distances between our two countries.”

In an editorial, The Hindu newspaper argued not only that dialogue must continue, but that India and Pakistan must learn the lessons of the Islamabad talks by encouraging officials of both countries to be more restrained in their public comments. Indian Home Secretary G.K. Pillai, it said, should have known better than to air in public India’s allegation about ISI involvement in Mumbai on the eve of the foreign ministers’ talks, an allegation which was not particularly new and which had already been conveyed to Islamabad.  ”Its public airing at a sensitive moment raises troubling questions about the motives for doing so, and about who really runs this government,” it said. ”The Pakistan Foreign Minister too has been unnecessarily aggressive in his posturing towards India, perhaps out of domestic political compulsions.”

Those comments found an unlikely echo in the person of Hamid Gul, former head of the ISI, who said the remarks from both Pillai and Qureshi were unnecessary.  “I think we need to douse the fires of aggression,” he said.

Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper said in an editorial that the acrimony over the Islamabad talks could actually indicate that Pakistan and India were making a sincere effort to engage with each other - although it also did not rule out the possibility that hawks on both sides of the border were out to sabotage the process.

“The more optimistic interpretation is that India and Pakistan are warily re-engaging one another, the diplomatic hiccups the result of a nascent but real process of rebuilding trust and confidence in a relationship poisoned by mutual distrust,” it said. ”For a dispute that is over six decades old, a few months …  is a mere blink of an eye. The optimists suggest that the excruciatingly slow pace of re-engagement isn’t indicative of problems but a way of building a solid base for the next phase of the peace dialogue between the two countries. Rational and sensible people on both sides of the border will be hoping that it is the optimistic hypothesis which is true.”

Qureshi and Krishna will have another chance to meet on the sidelines of an international conference on Afghanistan in Kabul next week. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Gilani – who are the ones who are really driving the dialogue process - could also have an opportunity to talk on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September. Qureshi has also been invited to visit India, although no dates have been set.

It will be a long slow process - and one that is always vulnerable to another major militant attack. And as yet, the nature of that re-engagement has yet to really take form.  On the surface, the most obvious disagreement is over what should be discussed – India wants action on what it calls cross-border terrorism; Pakistan wants all issues discussed, including what it sees as the core issue of Kashmir.

But the problems run much deeper than that, in what B.Raman, formerly at Indian intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), calls here the “negative reflexes” which have dominated attitudes in both countries since the violent partition of the subcontinent in 1947. (Do read his article for a proposal on how dialogue between the two countries should be structured.)

I would argue they go back even further than 1947, into an asymmetry of thinking between the then-dominant Congress party which wanted an independent, secular and united India, and the Muslim League, which insisted Muslims would neither be safe from Hindu domination nor achieve their political aspirations without a separate homeland.  In other words, Congress favoured the status quo, but with India ruled by Indians rather than the British; the Muslim League favoured radical change.  Congress insisted Muslims would be safe in a secular and united India; the Muslim League said they would be threatened.

Much of that asymmetry in thinking remains visible today.  India wants dialogue to proceed through incremental confidence building measures; Pakistan wants a more radical, all-encompassing peace deal.  When it comes to Kashmir, India favours the status quo; Pakistan wants change and in the past has been prepared to nurture Islamist militant groups – some of which are now turning against Pakistan – to force that change. 

As Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Islamabad argues here,  “The fundamental problem is that the status quo, with India in effective control of most of Jammu and Kashmir, favours India. Thus, a sustained series of so-called confidence building measures which reduces the threat of hostilities has the effect of making the status quo more tolerable for India over time, thus creating a strong disincentive for India to engage in a real negotiation. Correspondingly, in Pakistan, confidence building measures in the absence of progress on the core issues in dispute only make the prospect of Indian concessions on Kashmir all the more unlikely and, thus, a policy focused initially on creating trust all the less sustainable.

“This is especially true where terrorism and militant groups are concerned.  In South Asia, as elsewhere, terrorism is the tool of the weak. Without any other effective means of redressing Indian repression of Muslims in Indian administered Kashmir, a Pakistani focus on cracking down on so called “Kashmiri” militant groups based in Pakistan itself is unlikely to be accepted by the army, and only risks further undermining a Pakistani government already beset with domestic militant threats on all sides.”

The asymmetry is clear even in the language both countries use. India says Kashmir is not disputed; Pakistan says it is. India says it is not a threat to Pakistan; yet Islamabad, and more particularly the generals in Rawalpindi, say it is.  Indian politicians sometimes like to stress that India as a rising world power has more important concerns than focusing on Pakistan, infuriating Pakistanis who see this as another expression of Indian insistence on the status quo and evidence of the perceived arrogance of its much bigger neighbour.

You can’t change the asymmetry in thinking which grew out of an earlier era, in 1930s British India.  But can India and Pakistan at least acknowledge its existence, and in doing so, find a way to transform their faltering dialogue process into a durable peace?

(Update/postscript: Siddharth Varadarajan at The Hindu has a useful readout on why the foreign ministers’ talks failed, blaming this in particular on an inability to agree a timeline for holding talks on Siachen)