We can get there

by Saleha Javaid

Pakistan-India relations since independence have revolved around mutual distrust, uncertainty, disappointments, tensions and fear of conflict.

We should seriously think as to why it`s so, especially when both countries gained independence from a single colonial power through a political process, negotiated between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. While we often hear people from both sides say, had the two countries been one, we would have been a force to reckon with, both in might and economy, I wonder why India and Pakistan can`t draw strength from each other as friendly and stable neighbours, sharing a common past, heritage and civilisation.

Bilateral disputes between them remain unresolved, their cooperation bounded by severe limitations. India thinks Pakistan is an irritant impeding India`s emergence as a key player in the world economy and Pakistan feels that India has been trying to destabilise Pakistan since partition.

Unlike the past when Kashmir was the sole issue with maximum emotive appeal, today we have mutually impinging interests, of an unusually urgent kind, such as the issue of India blocking the waters of the western rivers, against the spirit of the Indus Water Treaty. If we don`t attend to the crisis, it will come and haunt us a few decades down the road when the Himalayan glaciers recede because of global warming.

Despite domestic sensitivities, Pakistan and India should realise that peace between them is imperative. They can no longer afford an armed conflict because it can easily escalate into a nuclear conflagration. The use of force for the settlement of bilateral disputes must be ruled out by both countries. The real challenge lies in building up trust and confidence, establishing a strategic restraint regime, developing mutually beneficial cooperation and making meaningful progress towards the resolution of all outstanding disputes for a genuine and lasting peace. Force and propaganda should no longer be considered viable for securing the objectives of foreign policy. Instead what should be considered feasible is a `tactical adjustment` aimed at clarifying intentions and promoting goodwill.

The meeting between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan in March 2010 served as an icebreaker in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks. The subsequent revival of talks led to genuine optimism for resuming the composite dialogue and finding breakthroughs on all issues. There is a growing consensus among parties, individuals and independent experts that the potential for possible headway has increased significantly. They feel that achieving a breakthrough is not as important as preventing a breakdown!

Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gilani had a cordial meeting in Sharm-el-Sheikh, they exchanged courtesies in Washington and the recent bilateral meeting in Bhutan has paved the way forward for peaceful resolutions. Singh, often seen as a dove, carrying the emblem of peace, has already de-linked peace talks from progress on terrorism, hence talks are not being held hostage to Pakistan combating perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks.

The meetings have set the stage to seek deeper entrenchment in a sustained peace process, to try and agree upon an agenda, procedure and comfortable venue for talks. We must recognise that the details stage of negotiation is invariably more difficult and time consuming than the formula stage and will require the participation of experts. What is needed is precision, confidentiality and objective consideration of national interest. The momentum of negotiations can falter for a number of reasons, even if the government is committed to progress. Therefore it`s not a bad idea to have both symbolic and artificial deadlines.

Initiatives like `Aman ki asha` and subsequent people-to-people interactions may revitalise the peace process and have made a strong case for hope. A healthy exchange of ideas and opinions through a culture of debate and dialogue can make both sides adaptable and responsive and will give both countries leeway to bargain for mutual concessions. Cultural, religious and ideological tolerance will help explore and expand channels of bilateral negotiation.

For most of their history, India and Pakistan were locked into public postures that made negotiations impossible without jeopardising the domestic position of their leaders. There was profound mistrust of each other`s intentions and both countries employed threats as a tool. Today there are solid grounds for optimism about the future because peace seems obtainable through a cooperative pursuit of common interests.

Peace between India and Pakistan would mean that soldiers who have borne the greatest brunt will be surrendering postures in defence of which they have lost brothers; settlers will be relinquishing control over land in which they have sunk roots; exporters might lose important markets and workers may lose their source of income. When a settlement of great political sensitivity is eventually reached, it will still have to be packaged to obscure and minimise the most sensitive concessions. There should be no vagueness and no inconsistencies and the deal should be defensible at home.

The media on both sides can play an instrumental role in facilitating talks and driving negotiations forward by providing reassurances to each country that what is being said is heartfelt and both parties are genuinely interested in negotiating a peace-deal. The media can assist in the construction of an agreement by helping people understand the depth of a conflict that has obstructed relations for more than 62 years.

Our ultimate goal should be to ensure a secure and prosperous future for our people by addressing issues that are common to all South Asian neighbours such as poverty, healthcare, food security, water and energy shortages, terrorism and environmental problems. We need to pool resources, share knowledge and work towards a common strategy to earnestly address and resolve these critical concerns. What we need is visionary leadership, unflinching commitment and firmness of intent.

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