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The Indo-Pak stalemate
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06 Mar 2010
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Saturday, March 06, 2010
Mariam Chaudhry

Black and white. Green and saffron. Right and wrong. These are the boundaries within which India and Pakistan continue to view each other. Our topography of lofty peaks and pitless oceans does a good job of typifying the gaps in our sentiments. Yet more imagery in contrasts played out few days ago, when at the conclusion of the Indo-Pak talks, both the Indian and the Pakistani foreign secretaries addressed separated press conferences, ostensibly directed at each one’s home audience. Sharing the same podium, it seems, would have appeared too friendly, too conciliatory, surely too much like ‘giving in’. And appearances, of course, must be kept, even as both sides agreed on continuing the process.

The latest round of talks between the two countries took place under such unusually low expectations that terming them a success or failure would be pointless. It is, however, not at all unusual for the Indo-Pak interactions to be wrapped around semantics rather than substance. And true to its tradition, each side carefully worded its respective stand, took a bow and retired until the next valuable opportunity to repeat the same may be created.

Yet another lesson in semantics was dispensed recently when the newly anointed junior Indian minister for external affairs, Shashi Tharoor, was squarely rounded off for suggesting that Saudi Arabia could act as an ‘interlocutor’ between India and Pakistan. Mr Tharoor was ‘Tharoorly’ ill-informed; words such as ‘interlocutor’ may not be used as they resound too close to ‘mediation’- something that the government of India can’t, won’t and shan’t accept! No, Mr Tharoor, that would have upset the apple-cart of ‘bilateralism’ in which all discomfiting matters can be buried!

So, while India enters into talks on the US prompting and seeks Saudi help in dealing with Pakistan, all in the name of ‘non-mediation’, why is there no outcome after all? Semantics offer us one suggestion. The India-Pakistan relations are steeped in such brutal history that even the subtlest hints of reconciliation send paroxysms through the vast contingents of hardliners present on both the sides. This complicated emotional syntax of the subcontinent manages to overwhelm rationality. In India, Prime Minister Manmohan’s retort to President Zardari in Russia was to be celebrated, Sharm al Sheikh mourned and General Musharraf dismissed for his outspokenness in Agra. There was little by way of outcome at any of these gatherings, it was all about navigating the language. Self-preservation was tied to the ability of trouncing the other in a war of words. The upshot of such interactions is naturally limited then.

But there is another reason why talks between India and Pakistan amount to one step forward and then two steps backwards. A dialogue directly pitches India and Pakistan’s stance on the ‘core’ issue of Kashmir against each other. New Delhi doesn’t want to talk about Kashmir; it is quite content with the current status quo in which it controls over two-thirds of Kashmir with its army. It would happily accept the LoC as the international border or freeze the current status quo. The only concern is militancy, which India fails to acknowledge, stems from the disputed nature of the Kashmir issue and the recalcitrance of the Kashmiri leadership in clinging to their demand of ’self-determination’. When the going gets tough on these two counts then it is time to talk.

Thus, India comes to the talks table, but with a unifocal soliloquy on treating ‘terrorism’. And now there are other compulsions, of course. In the current milieu India also wants to preserve its role in Afghanistan which is currently in jeopardy. It would hugely gain if a transit trade agreement allows it to transport goods to Afghanistan via Pakistan. In fact, trade with Pakistan itself would benefit it immensely. These are all good reasons to talk, but its contentment with its asphyxiating clutch on Kashmir prevents it from a serious engagement which tackles the ‘core’ as well as the fringe variety of topics. It doesn’t want mediation either which would likely hold a more balanced view of the situation.

There is more than a degree of denial to this approach though. Wishing away problems doesn’t make them go away. The vocabulary of engagement is already changing in South Asia. On the west side, after years of battling the Taliban, the United States now talks of re-integrating them into the folds of society. In the east, the Indian Home Minister Chidambaram tells the Maoist rebels that he is ready to talk if they halt violence for three days. The Maoists in turn want a three day halt in what they term as ’state terror’ against them. Clearly, using force and obduracy to yield results has its limits.

Now, it would help greatly if we all came to that realisation earlier than later. If we invest less jargon and more meaning to the Indo-Pak meets, then perhaps we may finally end up with more than a stalemate at our hands.

The writer is an independent journalist.

Email: mariam.chaudhry@gmail.com

Let us hope again
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09 Feb 2010
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Tuesday, February 09, 2010
Mariam Chaudhry

The subcontinent is once again abuzz in anticipation of a fresh round of talks between India and Pakistan. No pronouncements have been made yet on what areas these talks will actually traverse but the respite is nearly as overdue as the late on-setting rains. So, tentative as maybe the first drops, the overcast looks promising for now.

The current freeze experienced a thaw earlier with the production of a joint statement at Sharm el-Sheikh re-committing to the ‘dialogue process’. The melt was short-lived when subsequent uproar in India caused Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to quickly retrace his steps over the communiqué. The hard-line domestic constituency in India found concessions such as de-linking of the composite dialogue from action on terrorism to be unduly ‘indulgent’ towards Pakistan. Such was the brouhaha and subsequent isolationism faced by Dr Manmohan, that the ‘gentle Singh’ treads ever so carefully this time. The cautious outreach is an attempt to pressure Pakistan preceding any parleys as well as gauge reactions back home, where attempts to re-engage with Pakistan are quickly branded as some sort of a grand capitulation.

In this delicate mode India returns to the talks table because dialogue is the only constructive mode of engagement available to the two hostile neighbours. Though this wisdom fundamentally underpins the ‘composite dialogue’, it is currently with a nudge and an elbow from the international community that India is hastening its return to an inevitable discussion process. The 26/11 tragedy has by now been milked for its worth and with the practical commencement of its current Afghanistan strategy, the United States in particular is loath to see any distractions in the form of India-Pakistan bickering or worse. The day of US exit and with it a slackening of its interest in Indo-Pak affairs may not be too far now. This is suggestive that despite avowed intentions both countries aren’t really averse to a shadow US role in negotiations — if it can be twisted to suit either’s purposes of course.

Though the agenda for the talks is not yet defined, certain unremarkable guesses can be made. The outcome of the London Conference on Afghanistan has seen a marginalisation of India’s role in Afghanistan. Earlier on his Pakistan visit, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates revealed to have not sought any Indian military units or trainers for Afghanistan hence laying to rest Pakistan’s reservations on those counts. For now the ball is squarely in Pakistan’s court and it has a pre-eminent position in Washington’s strategy. This strategy increasingly appears to be making space for some sort of a Taliban rapprochement, something Islamabad has counselled and is anathema to India. Regaining leverage on the Afghanistan question for India may thus have to be re-routed through a Pakistan dialogue for now. It is patent that India would want a narrower agenda for starters with the issue of terrorism topping the list. It doesn’t want to appear to be weakening in its stance i.e. let’s discuss Mumbai first, everything else comes later.

Pakistan wants a broader dialogue. It continues to consider Kashmir as the core dispute between the two countries. Kashmir has been paid scant attention by the west so far but the idea that it’s the key reason for festering militancy in South Asia is gaining currency in policy circles. The west has also shown a reversal on its policy of counselling Pakistan that it faces an ‘existential threat’ on its western borders alone. Secretary Gates and Envoy Holbrooke conceded that Pakistan has ‘legitimate concerns’ on its eastern borders as well. The days of holding Pakistan solely responsible for peace in the region seem to be giving way to a fairer and wider accountability towards regional peace.

Meanwhile the US cheers from the sidelines and has a great potential for encouraging talks towards success but it often ends up confusing the environment for all parties involved. Many suspect the US to be engineering a climate which would allow it to save face and exit from Afghanistan, leaving the region to sort its own tangled mess. The potential of such a scenario prevents a serious engagement between India and Pakistan, imbuing the air with mistrust and consigning talks to a mere formality, while each secretly figures a way to outmanoeuvre the other on the proxy battleground that Afghanistan presents. Furthermore, statements such as Secretary Gates throwing his weight behind the Indian manifest of attacking Pakistan in case of another episode of terrorism serve to inflame rather than pacify sentiments.

The degree of faith which Pakistan and India can invest in each other and their purposefulness in developing a minimum common agenda, however, should be deciders for any continuity. India fears a lack of intent from the Pakistani side especially in its perception of possible dissent between the military and civil thinking. Pakistan resents serving as a perpetual bogey for Indian politicians seeking to establish their nationalist credentials by indulging in Pakistan-bashing. India’s sole emphasis on the charges of terrorism signifies to Pakistan that India is only interested in charge-sheeting and posturing to the international audience while going ahead with its own belligerent agenda encapsulated in doctrines such as the ‘Cold Start War’. Placating each other on these counts should help defuse the atmosphere.

Let’s hope once again then that these first droplets give way to an eventual watershed.

The writer is an independent journalist. Email: mariam.chaudhry@gmail.com

Rooti Kepra Aur Mekaan
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04 Jul 2008
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