x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Nuclear rivals find some common ground

India and Pakistan agree to take joint action on terrorism, a move that could help to resolve broader differences between the two countries and foster peaceful relations.

The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, right, and his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani agreed during a meeting last week on the need to keep dialogue continuing.
The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, right, and his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani agreed during a meeting last week on the need to keep dialogue continuing.

MUMBAI // After months of heightened tension between India and Pakistan following the terror attacks in Mumbai last November, the two nuclear rivals took their first steps towards detente last week. India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and his Pakistani counterpart, Yousaf Raza Gilani, who met on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh, agreed that dialogue between the two nations "is the only way forward".

Without any bellicose finger pointing, they not only decided to fight terrorism together, but, remarkably, they also agreed on the need to insulate the composite dialogue, or the peace process, from the war against terrorism. "Action on terrorism should not be linked to the composite dialogue process and these should not be bracketed," said the joint statement issued after their meeting. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai last year, when India blamed Pakistan for "exporting terror" and not doing enough to bring the perpetrators to justice, the composite dialogue process was stalled after being unilaterally suspended by India. Last week's joint statement is indicative of a marked progress in ties since then, analysts say, which could aid in resolving broader differences and foster peaceful relations between the two countries.

"The joint statement, evidently hard-fought word for word, reflects an acknowledgement that they have to, with optics, address issues on which little substantive [progress] has been achieved," said an editorial last week in The Indian Express, a national daily. "Indeed, resumption of India-Pakistan engagement is a valuable achievement." India and Pakistan have shared a tenuous relationship since independence, especially over the territorial dispute of Kashmir. They have met on numerous occasions, and promised to resolve the dispute, but the process has for years been held hostage by the issue of terrorism.

From the late 1990s until the Mumbai attack, after waging two bloody wars over Kashmir, the two countries evinced a serious interest in negotiations. But the dialogue was rocked by a series of crises - nuclear tests conducted by India in 1998, followed by a similar set of tests by Pakistan. Relations nosedived after the 1999 Kargil war. And the two countries came perilously close to war after a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in 2002.

However, in 2004, after the Congress-led coalition was sworn into office, the stalled process restarted and made some key gains, including the negotiation of a framework for the settlement of the Kashmir dispute. But the process collapsed again after the Mumbai attacks. Although last week's joint statement marks a giant leap, there are mounting concerns in some political quarters in India about progressing with the dialogue process without simultaneously pressuring Pakistan to act against terrorists operating from its soil.

Lal Krishna Advani, leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament, said last week that by "de-linking terrorism from composite dialogue the government had capitulated to Pakistan's demand seven months after the Mumbai attacks". Mr Advani then led his party to boycott the parliamentary session by walking out of the Lok Sabha. "[The joint statement] does not mean any dilution of our stand," the prime minister responded in parliament. "It only strengthens our stand."

He clarified that India had not softened its demand that Pakistan aggressively bring those responsible for the Mumbai attack to justice, but the opposition is not convinced. Some observers are also sceptical the joint statement might be the result of deft draftsmanship rather than a seismic policy shift. "There [might be] no clinching breakthrough," the editorial in the Indian Express said. "The silences in the joint statement are yet to be filled."

The joint statement was silent on the issue of Kashmir, but unexpectedly, it touched upon violence in Pakistan's Baluchistan province. Neither the exact contours of the dialogue on Baluchistan are clear, nor why it merited inclusion in the joint statement. But including it in the statement is significant given Pakistan has long accused India of fomenting trouble in the region. Mr Singh was quick to point out that "India had nothing to hide".

Despite the agreement to de-link terrorism from the dialogue process, there is some scepticism as to whether the two cannot be so easily dissociated. Recent US intelligence reports indicate an uptick in the activities in Lashkar-i-Taiba (LiT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed, two Pakistan-based militant groups, in the region of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. Richard Barrett, a top UN official, recently highlighted growing links between LeT and the Taliban.

Reports also highlight the possibility of more terrorist attacks in Mumbai. "Another attack could well send the entire peace process into a terminal tailspin," said an editorial in the Times of India. But Pakistan categorically said its intentions to fight terrorist outfits should not be questioned. In recent months, Pakistan has nearly slipped into the throes of a civil war, as it tackles an increasingly belligerent Taliban insurgency on its soil. Considering both countries face a common enemy, Mr Gilani reiterated in Sharm El Sheikh the need for both countries to work closely together.

"India is a larger country, and if it has to progress in this geopolitical landscape, it has to take Pakistan along with it," Jamshed Ayaz Khan, the president of the Islamabad-based Institute of Regional Studies, said in a telephone interview. "An unstable Pakistan is not in India's interest." achopra@thenational.ae