Stability in South Asia: Time for a Lasting Peace Between India and Pakistan

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Dr. Humayun Khan and Salman Haidar*

(This essay has been jointly written by Dr. Humayun Khan – former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan – and Salman Haidar – former Foreign Secretary of India – and reflects the commonality of thought on Indo- Pak relations of two opposing sides.)

South Asia is one of the most important regions of the world. It is home to one fourth of the entire human race, it has a vast reservoir of talent in many fields, two of the countries of the region are nuclear powers, it has the largest middle class in the world and constitutes a huge market. At the same time, the region contains the majority of the world’s poor, it is ridden with sectarian and caste beliefs and it has, for the past sixty years, devoted a disproportionate share of its resources to non-productive sectors like defense. Most significantly, the countries of South Asia, since they achieved independence, have not been able to forge a cooperative framework that can match the European Union or ASEAN. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), now more than 25 years old, remains dormant.

Yet, by all standards, the countries of South Asia are ideally placed to fashion, among themselves, an environment of peace and cooperation. They have an ancient shared history and are heirs to a common and proud heritage. For centuries, they enjoyed a unity which brought together a variety of religions, cultures and traditions and resulted in a good deal of fusion and commonality of norms. Even under the British, this coexistence continued. As independent States, they have so many practices and values that they share and which they could build upon to the immense benefit of each of them.

Unfortunately, none of this has happened and relations between the countries of the region, particularly the two largest, India and Pakistan, have never achieved a stable and positive character. To understand why this is so, one has to go back to the beginning of their existence as independent States.

Historians differ in their interpretation of how partition came about. Pakistanis have traditionally subscribed to the view that it was the determination and singleness of purpose consistently displayed by Mr. Jinnah that won them a separate State of their own. Others maintain that Mr. Jinnah tried till the very last to maintain the concept of a united India and his sole concern was to achieve a fair deal for the permanent Muslim minority. In his view, the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946, would have achieved this, but the Congress scuttled it. Whatever be the case, when partition was decided upon, the common expectation was that the two newly independent States would live in peace and cooperation with each other. Sadly, the process of dividing a subcontinent with 400 million inhabitants was rushed through in a matter of weeks and took place in brutal circumstances, leading to a virtual bloodbath, in which upto a million people were killed and some 12 million displaced. More importantly, this massacre generated acute feelings of hostility between the various communities like the Hindus, the Muslims and the Sikhs, who had lived peacefully with each other for centuries. The after effects of partition influenced bilateral relations for a long time.However, it is a tribute to human nature that, over the past sixty odd years, this bitterness has given way to feelings of nostalgia among those who had to leave their homes in 1947 and begin a new life in another country. Today, it is this very category that leads the call for peace and good neighbourly relations between India and Pakistan. This is especially true of the inhabitants of East and West Punjab.

Added to this, a new problem which was to bedevil relations for more than sixty years, and which still remains unsolved, arose over the princely State of Jammu and Kashmir. The disputed accession to India by the Maharaja led to internal disturbances and, eventually, to the first of three wars between India and Pakistan in 1948. It ended with a ceasefire sponsored by the United Nations in 1949 and an agreement to hold a plebiscite, under UN auspices, to determine the wishes of the Kashmiri people. For various reasons, such a plebiscite was never held and controversy still rages over which side was responsible for this. In September,1965, the two countries were again engaged in a war which ended in a stalemate within three weeks. The UN once more brokered a ceasefire. A post-war peace conference was sponsored by the Soviet Union at Tashkent, which ended in agreement to solve all differences peacefully, but did not meaningfully address the casus belli, which was Kashmir. The third war between the two neighbours arose out of the dangerously faulty policies of the military regime in Pakistan to suppress the separatist movement in its Eastern wing. India invaded East Pakistan in December 1971, in support of the independence movement and, later in the month, the new State of Bangladesh was born. This event, in which the Pakistan army suffered a humiliating defeat, greatly intensified the old hostilities and generated new ones, which have not been erased to this day. The fear of a larger neighbour, bent on destroying Pakistan, which had always existed, now became a virtual phobia, particularly among the armed forces of Pakistan

All this reinforced the smaller country’s belief that security was its primary and overwhelming concern and all its policies like defense expenditure and external alliances, and finally, the acquisition of nuclear capability, flowed from this.

Between the three open conflicts, the bilateral relationship followed an erratic course. The Simla Agreement, reached in 1972, attempted to lay down terms for a durable peace. On paper, this agreement has held, in the sense that war has been avoided for 40 years, yet it has never actually succeeded in providing the desired amount of stability in Indo-Pak relations. Near warlike situations have repeatedly occurred. Pakistan’s support for the Sikh secessionist movement in the 1980’s; the Indian occupation of the Siachen Glacier in 1984; the internal uprising in Jammu and Kashmir in 1990; the highly provocative incursion by the Pakistan army into Kargil in 1999; the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in the winter of 2001 and, finally, the horrendous carnage by Pakistan-based terrorists in Mumbai in September 2008, were all events that could have led to a full blown conflict, which, after 1998, would have proved fatal, as it would have involved two nuclear powers. Such a conflict would affect, not just the two protagonists but the South Asia region as a whole and, indeed, the entire international community.

This is a generally discouraging picture, but it is not the whole story. Despite all the setbacks, saner elements in both countries continued to work for normalization of relations. In the 1980’s, there were serious discussions on a No-War Pact and a Treaty of Peace and Friendship. A Joint Commission was set up to promote cooperation in diverse fields. In the 1990’s, the two Foreign Secretaries devised a framework for a composite dialogue to address a whole range of issues and, finally, in 1999, Prime Minister Vajpayee undertook his ground breaking bus ‘yatra’ to Lahore, where both sides signed the Lahore Declaration. It was on this occasion that the Indian Prime visited the National Monument in the city and made the categorical statement that India had fully accepted the reality of Pakistan as a separate, independent State and nobody should fear that India wanted to harm it. This initiative of Mr. Vajpayee, which was warmly welcomed in Pakistan and worldwide, showed that much can be achieved by bold and imaginative leadership.

Unfortunately, the spirit of Lahore did not survive long and was wrecked by Gen. Musharraf’s rash adventure in Kargil. Despite this, Mr. Vajpayee again took the initiative and invited Musharraf to Agra in 2001. He was well received and the talks began on a positive note. Contrary to expectations, however, the Summit ended in failure as Musharraf took a rigid line on Kashmir and Vajpayee’s team did the same on cross-border incursions. Another hiatus of two years followed. Then, at the SAARC meeting in Islamabad in January 2004, Vajpayee once again extended the olive branch and agreed to start a composite dialogue that would address all issues, including Kashmir. In return, Musharraf gave a clear assurance that Pakistan would not allow its territory to be used for cross-border incursions.The spirit of the Islamabad agreement received added impetus by the observance of a ceasefire along the Line of Control in Kashmir and the successful tour of the Indian cricket team, during which the public on both sides gave enthusiastic demonstrations of friendship.

The dialogue process itself continued satisfactorily for four years, when it was rudely shattered by the carnage at Mumbai in September, 2008. As if to confirm the fragility of the overall relationship, India broke off the composite dialogue.

Two years were lost because public feeling in India was greatly aroused by Mumbai and Dr. ManMohan Singh’s government felt that its policies should reflect this. The basic reality, however, remained. It was not in the interest of either country to depart from the path of negotiations and the suspension of talks after Mumbai was not, in any way, helping the fight against terror. At the SAARC meeting in Thimpu, Bhutan, in 2010, the two Prime Ministers agreed to a limited resumption of talks and soon afterwards, the Foreign Secretaries were able to expand the agenda to cover all subjects which had been under discussion in the composite dialogue.

At the moment, these talks are proceeding well, though there have been no major breakthroughs. The first meeting of Foreign Ministers in the summer of 2010 was something of a fiasco, but the second meeting, which was held in Delhi in July 2011, showed a very positive approach by both sides and has raised expectations about the future. The task before the two countries now is to ensure that the dialogue becomes truly uninterruptible and does not remain hostage to single events. The present seems to be a propitious moment to attempt this.

The two most inflammable issues that could jeopardize the peace process are Kashmir and terrorism. There are hopeful signs that mutually acceptable solutions to both can be found. On Kashmir, the back channel that ManMohan Singh and Musharraf set up, made considerable progress. Indeed, according to some, it had worked out a framework for a settlement. Unfortunately, the new elected government in Pakistan has, more or less, disowned this process, largely because it was based on ideas put forward by a military dictator who had no mandate. Perhaps, the army which, presumably, had supported it while Musharraf was in power, has now had second thoughts.

Clearly, all political parties in Pakistan are eager to improve relations with India. This is evident from recent public declarations made by Prime Minister Gillani and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. Yet they both hold back for fear of opposition from the military. To move forward courageously on the Kashmir issue and build on the progress already achieved, is now the main task before the two countries, for no better route to a conclusion can be envisaged.

The crucial point in a settlement on Kashmir must remain its acceptance by the Kashmiri people. Efforts to mobilize Kashmiri opinion in favour of a compromise are vital. The basic demand of the Kashmiris on both sides seems to be the de facto restoration of the order that prevailed in the State at the time of partition. This is tempered by a sense of realism, in that they acknowledge that boundaries cannot be re- drawn, but they can be made irrelevant. There is no significant demand for accession to Pakistan, except on the part of a very few separatists. Nor is there any genuine expectation of an independent Kashmir in the legal sense. In Indian administered Kashmir, the call is for autonomy as envisaged at the time of accession. In addition, there are specific complaints to be addressed like the concentration of troops in urban areas, recovery of missing persons, return of refugees who have fled, compensation for victims of violence and so on. All these are under discussion between Delhi and Srinagar and are part of the confidence building measures agreed to by both India and Pakistan. The desire to make the Line of Control a totally porous border is shared by Kashmiris on both sides and the agreed confidence building measures clearly envisage freedom of movement for travel and trade. Unfortunately, the agreed CBMs are not being implemented in their true spirit, but they do represent the essential elements of a settlement and are eminently doable. Some incremental progress on this front was achieved at the Foreign Ministers’ meeting in July 2011, but much more can be done. For example, the frequency of the bus services across the LOC was increased and some facilitative steps for cross-border trade,including an expansion in the list of tradable commodities, were introduced. It is difficult to understand why, if the concept of a porous border has been agreed to by all stakeholders, there should not be full vehicular traffic on all routes and free exchange of goods. If the agreed CBM’s are faithfully implemented, further steps like coordinating mechanisms on common issues like the environment, water, tourism etc. should not be difficult. Basically, the main purpose of a settlement must be to bring comfort to the inhabitants of Kashmir, to put an end to the violence, the killings and the abuse of human rights and to enable them to live a normal life in peace. The achievement of this objective is by no means impossible, but this requires a degree of trust and cooperation, in the overall sense, between India and Pakistan.

On terrorism, the obvious need is for both countries to cooperate in defeating this menace. Regrettably, a number of terrorist incidents in India have been found to have originated in Pakistan, so Indian public opinion has been negatively influenced. Where the culprits have been or can be identified, it is incumbent on Pakistan to bring them to book and to satisfy India that it is making genuine efforts to do so. Conversely, India must do so in cases where Pakistan has been the sufferer in Indian acts of terror. In the long run, however, the absolute necessity of a cooperative effort to fight terror is clear. This would involve effective institutional arrangements for intelligence sharing, border controls, effective joint anti-terror mechanisms and so on.

Apart from these two major issues, there are a host of other problems like Siachen, Sir Creek, the Wullar Barrage, trade, visas, drug trafficking and, of course,  nuclear transparency. On some of these, like Sir Creek and Siachen, negotiations are reportedly in the final stages and an early conclusion would greatly strengthen the peace process.

Clearly, therefore, there are no problems between the two countries that cannot be solved through dialogue. The question is, how can dialogue be made the sole and continuous method and how can its derailment by single, unexpected events, be avoided. At the cost of stating the obvious, the answer to this is that the mistrust and hostility of the past sixty years have to be overcome. We have seen that, in the early years, there was reason for this, but much water has flowed under the bridge and the mind-sets in both countries need to adjust to changed circumstances.

Indian attitudes towards its neighbours have evolved as the country has moved steadily towards its own cherished goals. Its economic progress and its political stability, together with its size, have lifted it to the status of a world power. In order to merit this status, India needs to project itself as a good neighbour to the smaller countries of South Asia and not as a regional hegemon. In fact, India itself needs regional stability to continue its march forward without unnecessary distractions. Thus it has nothing to gain from bad relations with its neighbours and should have no hesitation in accepting the independence and separate personality of other countries, including Pakistan. Most right thinking Indians take this view. However, smaller neighbours are still not fully convinced of this.

As for Pakistan, its history since independence has not been a happy one. There was a prospect in the 1960’s that it might become a model developing country, but this hope soon vanished in the face of political instability and poor performance in the economic and social spheres. Repeated military intervention prevented democracy from taking root and continuing misgovernance, by both civilian and uniformed rulers, led the country to the serious condition in which it finds itself today. The fear of an aggressive and more powerful neighbour drove it towards becoming a security State, allocating the bulk of its resources to non-productive ends and ensuring the dominance of its armed forces in framing national policies. It also drove it to seek external alliances which were unequal in their nature and involved it in global rivalries. Its problems were further exacerbated by years of turmoil on its western border, as it allowed itself to be dragged into developments in Afghanistan, both after the Soviet intervention in 1979 and the US led war on terror in 2001. Today, Pakistan finds itself as the biggest victim of terrorism as well as its main source. Internally, the country is going through what many consider the most testing phase in its history and is faced with domestic problems which demand that it focus its attention on  internal issues. In order to be able to do this, peace with India, is an imperative.

Given this, it is manifestly in the interests of both India and Pakistan to forge a relationship of peace and amity. Why then can they not achieve this? Their relationship remains erratic and is badly in need of continuity and durability. While they must go on with efforts to solve specific differences, they have to look for a sea change in their overall attitude towards each other. The time has come for imaginative policies by each to bring this about.

The basic discourse which pervades Indo-Pak relations is whether specific disputes must first be solved before true normalization can be achieved or whether individual disputes are more easily resolved in an overall atmosphere of mutual trust and cooperation. Each side has wavered from one point of view to the other at different times. Regrettably, they have never held the same view at the same time. The present promising state of their relations seems a propitious moment to ensure that their future is based more on their permanent interests rather than the settlement of specific disputes. To prove this point, they have to create a lasting environment of mutual trust and freedom from fear.

Looking at the present conditions within Pakistan and India, the former’s need for peace is obviously greater, but the weakness of its civilian government and its internal malaise makes it unlikely that it can take any bold initiative. The army continues to hold sway in vital areas like relations with India, the US and Afghanistan, and the army remains obsessed with the image of a hostile India. Public opinion and political parties in Pakistan do not share this obsession, but they seem helpless. India, on the other hand, can live with the present state of affairs, yet it stands to benefit greatly from a transformed relationship. Bad relations with its neighbours can be a serious impediment in the way of achieving its aspirations. Undoubtedly, there exist in India also, lobbies that do not favour good relations with Pakistan, yet as both Vajpayee and ManMohan Singh have shown, that, in spite of this, bold leaders can launch major initiatives to bring about a real change. India needs to lay at rest even the imaginary fears of the military in Pakistan. In fact, it still needs convince all shades of opinion in Pakistan that these fears are indeed imaginary. This will enable Pakistan to concentrate on solving its internal problems rather than looking for external bogies.

The question is how and what Prime Minister ManMohan Singh can now do to bring this about. Like Vajpayee, he clearly has a strong desire for good relations with Pakistan. Despite domestic political pressures, he has been persistent in trying to improve relations and has revived the stalled dialogue more than once. Some useful progress on various issues and a measure of improved mutual confidence has indeed been achieved at recent meetings. But we are still some way from the major initiatives that could bring about real change and transform relations between the two countries. The slow and measured exchanges of the current dialogue have been useful, but now what is needed is direct engagement at the very top. Without that, major agreements on contested issues would be difficult.

A favourable opportunity has arisen out of the recent private visit of Mr. Zardari to Ajmer. He held talks with the Indian Prime Minister in Delhi and, among other things, renewed the invitation to the Indian leader to visit Pakistan. It is important that this invitation be availed of soon, for it would provide an opportunity for some bold initiatives. Maybe the political situation in both countries is not, at the moment, ideal because of impending elections etc, but certainly the visit should take place sooner rather than later.

During the visit, while reiterating his commitment to the ongoing dialogue and possibly announcing agreement on some specific issues like Siachen and Sir Creek, he could launch some imaginative measures to create trust and confidence between the two countries. He could, for example, revive the idea of a No-War Pact and a Treaty of Peace and Friendship, for which the drafts already exist. Some say this is unnecessary, because the Simla agreement of 1972 serves the same purpose. However, a formal reassertion of peaceful intentions would be lauded by the people of both countries and would be enthusiastically endorsed by the international community. To counter the military argument from the Pakistan side, he could offer discussions on relocation of forces along the border and propose regular meetings between Chiefs of the armed forces and of Intelligence agencies, to lessen suspicions. It is strange indeed that high level visits to both countries by top military leaders from all over the world are a regular occurrence, but those from two neighbouring countries do not even see each other. A better understanding of the thinking of each other’s military cannot be over- emphasised, because the security syndrome in the Pakistan army is the major obstacle in the way of progress. There may be some reluctance, perhaps on the part of  democratically elected civilian forces in India, to bring the armies directly into bilateral diplomacy, but it is difficult to see that this would have anything but positive effects, provided all such exchanges are under the aegis and control of the elected governments.

On the major outstanding issue of Kashmir, a clear decision by both sides, at the highest level, to simultaneously resume the back channel and the official negotiations could be taken and a firm political directive issued to officials on both sides to make the Line of Control a truly porous border, with free movement of vehicular traffic for travel and trade. A settlement of the Kashmir problem would also be of great value in addressing the vital issue of water. Although the Indus Water Treaty has held for more than fifty years, there has recently been an increase in complaints of violation of the Treaty. Clearly, a dispute over water will have disastrous consequences for bilateral relations and it is imperative that both sides  should seek to preempt this by  entering into talks about joint efforts in water management and to arrest environmental degradation in the upper reaches, which is causing a depletion in water flow. Such joint efforts will only be possible when the basic political issue of Kashmir is resolved.

The other major issue is terrorism. There remains the very real danger that, if another major terrorist attack, like the one in Mumbai in September 2008, takes place and its origins are traced to Pakistan, the peace process would again be endangered. Talks between the two countries have addressed this issue on a priority basis and there is agreement that firm action will be taken against the culprits. This would apply to both sides, wherever the culprits are found. It is encouraging to note that, in the two recent terrorist incidents in Delhi and Mumbai, India did not point a finger at Pakistan.

There are encouraging signs that both sides realize that they need to cooperate in combating terrorism. It is now essential that institutional arrangements for such cooperation be strengthened. Sharing of Intelligence and contacts between heads of intelligence agencies must become the norm.

On  Afghanistan, it is true that Pakistan has a vital stake in how the issue is resolved, but India too has legitimate interests. The Afghan problem has the potential of affecting Indo-Pakistan relations either in a positive or a negative way. If it is allowed to become an additional point of discord between the two, the negative impact on stability in South Asia will be enormous. If, on the other hand, India and Pakistan can consult each other on how maximum benefits can be obtained for all three countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India,the positive impact on the region will be equally immense. Pakistan can take the initiative by bringing the subject of Afghanistan on to the agenda of Indo-Pakistan talks.

The nuclear issue could be addressed so that the two countries can show to the international community that they are responsible nuclear powers and pose no threat to the region or the world. There already exists an agreement on non-attack on each others’ facilities. The area of agreement could be expanded to include nuclear safety, transparency, peaceful uses of nuclear power and so on.

In the critical field of economic development, common ground could be explored for mutually beneficial trade and economic relations. A major advance has been made with Pakistan agreeing to give Most Favoured Nation status to India. This will remove a major obstacle in the way of trade, though both countries will need to work out arrangements to avoid damage to each other’s economy. Pakistan can offer valuable transit facilities for Indian trade and commerce with Afghanistan and Central Asia. There is a need to allow vehicular traffic to flow freely across the land border. Pipeline projects to carry oil and gas across the subcontinent could become a reality. There are many possibilities.

As stated earlier ManMohan Singh’s visit could be a decisive moment for substantive and meaningful progress. The visit needs to take place soon and intensive diplomatic activity will be required to make it a success. Much can be achieved, provided both sides realize that the time has come to put their relationship on stable and permanent foundations.

Implementation will be easy. Deep seated mindsets are difficult to change. Nor are they just a sign of obstinacy. Those who hold on to them genuinely believe that they have reason to do so. They cannot be ignored. The task of convincing them that these reasons do not necessarily hold good today will be an uphill struggle, but it must be taken up with determination.

Official efforts will need to be supplemented by those at the people to people level and it is encouraging to note that a number of non-official bodies have been set up  to promote good relations. These include civil society organizations, parliamentarians, journalists and businessmen. Such endeavours must be encouraged by both governments. The key to any lasting relationship is that the people on both sides should want it. They can only show this if they can easily meet each other with a minimum of restrictions. South Asia’s greatest resource is the human one. In the long run, it is on this that the stability of the region will rest.