x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Plenty of chemistry, but little peace progress between India and Pakistan

In the quest for peace, Pakistan must address Indian concerns over cross-border terrorism, while India must accommodate Pakistan’s concerns over trade and travel.

It has been a difficult year for India-Pakistan relations. Not since the 2008 Mumbai attacks has the peace process, fragile at the best of times, looked so vulnerable. Especially since the abduction and gruesome beheading of an Indian soldier, allegedly by soldiers from the Pakistan army, and a series of attacks in Kashmir over the summer.

Public opinion in India has hardened in recent months with jingoistic calls for targeted American-style strikes against Pakistani militants and the suspension of the decade-long “composite dialogue’’ until Pakistan delivers on its promise to rein in extremists and punish the perpetrators of the Mumbai atrocity.

In turn, hawks in Islamabad have stepped up their own campaign, accusing New Delhi of funding and inciting insurgency in Baluchistan, and targeting Pakistan’s strategic interests in Afghanistan.

But the good news is that peace has won a breather, at least for now, with the prime ministers of the two countries committing themselves to “re-energising’’ their talks.

Meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session in New York, Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif shrugged off dissenting voices and declared that the dialogue would go ahead.

It was a gesture of defiance and was intended to send a strong message to those insurgent groups who, barely hours before the talks, had attacked a police station and an Indian army base in Kashmir sparking nationwide outrage.

Unsurprisingly, the right-wing opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) warned Mr Singh against “hugging the enemy’’. Even some peaceniks questioned the timing of the meeting.

Often derided for lacking spine, the Indian prime minister, though, stood up well to pressure arguing that he would not allow terrorists a veto on the peace process even as he lambasted Pakistan, calling it an epicentre of terrorism in the region.

He told his domestic critics that the only way to make friends with the enemy was to “hug” them.

Mr Sharif, too, took a big risk. He must have upset many in Pakistan, especially the powerful army establishment and the intelligence agency, ISI, both of whom have a long history of hostility towards India and are known to provide covert support to anti-India terror groups. It was the Pakistani army, then led by Pervez Musharraf, which toppled Mr Sharif in a coup after his 1998 landmark Lahore peace accord with India.

Mr Sharif admitted that there were forces in his country, including elements of the army, who wanted to derail the peace process, as was evident from the Kashmir incident.

Such acts of provocation, aimed at inviting retaliation from the Indian side, happened every time the two sides tried to move the dialogue forward. It was, therefore, important to put up a united front and not play into the peace-wreckers’ agenda.

Beyond the effusive mood music, however, the meeting yielded little.

There was no progress on any of the major issues – terrorism, trade or Afghanistan.

Indeed, there was so little to report that even a formal joint statement, normally diplomatic de rigueur after such high-level talks, was not issued.

A vague agreement on making a greater effort to hold the ceasefire along the Line of Control (LOC) was the only tangible outcome.

It was decided to ask the Directors-General of Military Operations (DGMOs) of the two countries to meet and suggest ‘’effective means to restore the ceasefire and ensure it remains in force and in place’’.

For the rest, the two prime ministers stuck to a careful script, with Mr Singh reiterating India’s demand for the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack, especially its alleged mastermind, Hafiz Saeed, to be brought to book. Mr Sharif, meanwhile, not wanting to be seen as being ‘’soft’’ by his critics, echoed allegations of Indian interference in Baluchistan, which India promptly rejected claiming there was ‘’no evidence’’.

Both sides made much of the atmospherics pointing to the “sense of comfort’’ the leaders exuded in each other’s company, despite not having ever officially met before. But more important was a common desire to take the peace process forward.

There is a tortuous history of hostility between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

They have fought three major wars, and are divided by a huge deficit of trust, partly a legacy of Partition. The divide will only grow wider if they stop talking to each other.

Indeed, there are few situations to which Winston Churchill’s preference for “jaw-jaw’’ rather than “war-war’’ applies better than in the case of India and Pakistan.

But what next?

One meeting, however heavy with symbolism, is no substitute for real progress on the ground. For that to happen, Pakistan must address Indian concerns over cross-border terrorism.

India, meanwhile, needs to show greater magnanimity in accommodating Pakistan’s concerns over trade and travel. It must also explore more imaginative ways of resolving the Kashmir dispute. Power-sharing could be one solution.

And what better moment to seize the day than now, not least because Mr Singh and Mr Sharif are “country cousins’’, the Indian prime minister having been born in what is now Pakistan.

The two leaders share a common cultural heritage and are said to prefer talking to each other in their native Punjabi, famous for its earthy jokes, than in English. In the end, this personal chemistry can prove important as they move beyond handshake diplomacy.

Hasan Suroor is a London-based Indian journalist