x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

India-Pak relations should make haste slowly to succeed

It would be better for relations between the two nuclear-armed nations to proceed slowly, rather than be forced to backtrack later

The director generals of India and Pakistan’s military operations met last Tuesday. This meeting was convened after months of accusations from both sides, as well as heightened tension along the Line of Control (LOC) and the Working Boundary and numerous civilian casualties.

In the weeks preceding this summit most analysts, including myself, were playing down its significance, suggesting that it would be unwise to pin too much hope on one gathering.

The outcome has, therefore, been a most pleasant surprise.

Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister, has been vigorously pursuing his desire to reach a peaceful settlement on all issues with India, but the Indian politico-military leadership did not seem prepared to reciprocate. This is not intended as an accusation, merely a fact – whatever its causes.

In the case of India and Pakistan, where mutual distrust and prejudices have been used by both sides to distort history and promote acrimony, such emotions fostered over many decades cannot be easily overcome. But it seems that, despite everything, one more beginning has begun.

Not many details have been made public. What we know is that both sides agreed to defuse tension along the LOC and the Working Boundary.

Following these talks, however, there have been some welcome developments in India. No longer is the media as critical of Pakistan as it has been previously. Once again expectations of talks on trade and commerce are being raised and Salman Khurshid, the Indian foreign minister, stated that “India has no option except to talk to Pakistan”.

The director generals of both militaries have been linked to each other by a “hotline” for some time. But this has seldom been used as a real hotline. More often than not, it has been used merely as a means to establish who is in a position of strength. For two countries with nuclear capabilities, this is the height of stupidity. It seems that the most significant (although unconfirmed) part of their agreement is to utilise this facility for what it is intended for.

For me, the most intriguing question is: why this change of heart in India?

In this regard, I find the views of Melkulangara Bhadrakumar, a former Indian diplomat, quite fascinating. His analysis is insightful, his criticism incisive, unbiased and unsparing for all. Interestingly, in one of his recent articles, he wrote on why the ongoing Indo-US row over the arrest of a diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, in the US, offered a priceless opportunity to improve Indo-Pak relations.

I agree though for additional reasons. Since Bill Clinton declared the US’s strategic interest in India, and US-Pakistan relations as being “iffy”, India considered its superiority as established. The row over the diplomat’s arrest is very recent, but the outcome of their strategic relationship has consistently fallen short of expectations on both sides, resulting in disillusionment.

Pakistan’s expected role in facilitating the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has also elevated its status, albeit temporarily. For the time being, both countries appear to be on a par as far as the US is concerned.

And then, there is Afghanistan. In my view, Afghanistan could be the catalyst that provides the incentive for improving relations between India and Pakistan.

I am in a small minority in Pakistan who hold the view that Indian influence in the Pashtun-dominated areas of Afghanistan is unlikely to pose a threat to Pakistan.

Explaining the reasons for that would necessitate another article. Suffice to say that, while a Pashtun will accept economic help from anybody, including the US and India, the Pashtun distrusts both.

In my view, Pakistan still has influence over some Afghans who are likely to play a role in Afghanistan’s future. Meanwhile, Indian influence is likely to be confined to the erstwhile Northern Alliance.

Pakistan also has an obvious interest in promoting peace in Afghanistan. India’s interests might be more complicated, but if shared with two neighbours, Pakistan and Iran, they could, and should, find common cause.

There is no indication from either side that Afghanistan figured in these talks between two senior military officials of India and Pakistan; but I get the feeling that Afghanistan lurks somewhere in the back of the minds of leaders on both sides. Maybe I am merely being hopeful.

Peace is the most laudable end that all humanity should seek.

In doing so, one can but hope that the elected representatives on both sides follow the advice of Edmund Burke who once said: “Your representative owes you not only his industry, but also his judgement, and he betrays you instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it (his judgement) to your opinion.”

Having said that, I would like to suggest that both sides “make haste slowly”. In such matters, it is better to progress slowly rather than to face the embarrassment of being forced to regress and recommence.

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer