In a significant development, the National Security Advisors of India and Pakistan recently met in Bangkok, Thailand. This was made possible due to the impromptu meeting between the prime ministers of the two countries on the sidelines of the Paris Climate Summit. The secrecy with which the meeting was organised -- taking opposition parties as well as the media in India by surprise -- probably ensured smooth and cordial talks without any external pressures. In another development, it is also expected that India's Foreign Minister will make an announcement on restoring the India-Pakistan cricketing ties during her Islamabad visit.
Following Partition and the four wars since then, both countries have generally buried their head in the sand, making it difficult to build good neighbourly relations. While the Lahore Declaration signed in February 1999 was a milestone that it was hoped would lead to a thawing of relations, its potential remained unrealised. The former president of Pakistan General Musharraf tried to break the impasse when he visited Agra in June 2001. At the Agra Summit, both the countries came close to reaching a consensus on various contentious issues but the talks failed for various reasons. More recently, the Ufa Agreement also sputtered to an untimely halt.
Both countries should set aside all differences... No negotiation can succeed in an atmosphere charged with distrust, tension, and grandstanding.
The relations between the two neighbours has continued to worsen, and came to such a pass, that the US Secretary of State, John Kerry offered to mediate between the two countries. At the heart of this bad blood lies the unresolved Kashmir dispute, a legacy left by Partition. As both the countries have taken extreme positions over the issue, it would be difficult to arrive at an agreement acceptable to both India and Pakistan. A war is also unthinkable between the two nuclear nations because of the tremendous damage it could cause to both sides.
India has always held the view that despite the best intentions of the civilian government in Pakistan, no worthwhile negotiation can take place without the army's blessings. It is because of the army's influence that the political leadership in Islamabad has always tread cautiously in its dealings with India. However, it must be said to the credit of Nawaz Sharif that he has taken some bold initiatives in resuming the dialogue with India.
The important question now is, what is the way forward? Here are a few suggestions:
First, both countries should set aside all differences until a climate of trust is created. No negotiation can succeed in an atmosphere charged with distrust, tension, and grandstanding
Second, both the countries should focus on improving cultural ties, through people to people contacts, visits of artists and so on.
Third, both the countries should work closely and share intelligence to combat terrorism, which has caused havoc on both sides of the border. With the threat of ISIS expanding its operations in South Asia, this partnership can work in ensuring that the terrorist organisation does not spread its tentacles in the region.
Fourth, Pakistan can take a leadership role by including China and India in addressing the growing terrorism in Afghanistan, which is threatening to destabilise the Afghan government.
At no stage should talks between the two countries be halted or discontinued, as such impasses can be exploited by vested interests.
Fifth, until an acceptable solution is found in Kashmir, free ingress and egress should be allowed for both sides of Kashmir.
Sixth, at no stage should talks between the two countries be halted or discontinued, as such impasses can be exploited by vested interests who don't want both the countries to live in peace. In fact, it would make sense to include the Pakistan army in the dialogue process, so that all stakeholders wholeheartedly support peace initiatives. A recent editorial in The Times of India titled "Back to Talking" states that "India shouldn't hesitate from opening direct channels of communication with Rawalpindi GHQ. The NDA government is best placed to effect this shift, and overall to improve relations with Pakistan".
All these steps will ensure that both the countries move towards cooperation and build a climate of trust. Both Modi and Sharif have already shown great statesmanship in attempting to further dialogue between both the countries, in spite of internal pressures . To borrow from Atal Bihari Vajpayee: "You can change your friends, but not your neighbours."
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