Prolonging instability

For too long now India has been refusing to re-start composite dialogue with Pakistan with the result that restoration of stable normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir continues to be as elusive as it was when the bilateral process was shattered by the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Normalisation of the ground situation in Kashmir, following the turbulent summer of 2010, continues to be too tenuous in the absence of concrete political backup. Lack of progress on the political front is clearly linked with the stalemate prevailing on the India-Pakistan front. Whatever little progress was achieved in the short 4-year span till November 2008 was the outcome of a set of confidence building measures (CBMs) resulting from the bilateral engagement. If there is a lesson to be learnt, yet again, it is that the overall atmospherics are of crucial importance to consolidation of peace and stability on the domestic front, as much as it is significant for bilateral relationship. For reasons which need not be repeated here any attempt at unravelling political issues relating to J&K can succeed only in conjunction with corresponding initiative on the ‘external’ front.

Even the start of the much talked about dialogue between separatist leaders in Kashmir and the Government of India is nowhere in sight because of the same reason. Nor has any progress been made towards enlarging the scope of existing CBMs which, otherwise, seem to be running dry or dried up already. Getting Pakistan on board is an essential pre-requisite even if one were to acknowledge the logic of widely divergent stated positions of India and Pakistan on the issue of J&K. The progress achieved between 2004 and 2008 could not have been possible without Pakistan’s involvement. That brief spell of sunshine has shown that the there is enough scope for both the countries to keep discussing ‘Kashmir’ without risking their prospects within respective domestic political spheres.

Diplomatic engagements on the cards include a meeting between two foreign secretaries next month during the SAARC conference Bhutan and Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s visit to New Delhi in return of his Indian counterpart SM Krishna’s Islamabad visit in July 2010. During the intervening period diplomatic talks have been held in the two capitals at the level of officials. The latest being the meeting between Pakistan foreign secretary and Indian envoy in Pakistan. Unfortunately, a crucial engagement slated for September 2010 at New York failed to come off, ostensibly in the bitterness created by mutually acrimonious encounter on the floor of the UN General Assembly. It is hoped that the secretary-level talks in Bhutan would clear the hurdles and pave way for early resumption of composite dialogue.

Another sad aspect of this story is that there is needless quibbling over semantics. India seems to be allergic to the term ‘composite’ dialogue and has been averse to return to the old format. Pakistan, on the other hand, feels as if there is no other route to proceed except for resuming the old format. Pakistan foreign minister Qureshi has been saying it on and off that he would travel to New Delhi only when he is assured that there would be ‘purposeful, result-oriented’ dialogue. Sticking point appears to be India’s felling that Pakistan had been dragging its feet over the sensitive issue of prosecuting the accused involved in the Mumbai attacks. There may be some truth in what the two sides have been arguing against each other but it is high time that they both realise the greater dangers involved in letting bilateral engagement remain a hostage to this stalemate.

Pressures of domestic politics appear to be playing their obstructive role as well. Ultra right radical lobbies have been on the offensive. Their resistance to any initiative towards normalisation of bilateral relationship has been growing more and more strident as the principal ruling parties in both the countries are surrounded by all sorts of internal challenges. The quality and stature of the leadership on either side happens to be such that it would be wrong to look for any path-breaking initiative. Even so, there is enough scope within the existing configuration of circumstances for, at least, picking up the threads where they were left in November 2008. Recent experience has shown that it is possible to make progress and strengthen peace even within the given constraints. That is certainly not asking for any great adventure. But failure to even try and do that much is fraught with undesirable implications as has been experienced as late as in the summer of 2010. Mistaking superficial calm for durable stability on the ground is like walking over thin ice.