The enemies are finally talking
The Nation
March 29, 1997
Even though nothing concrete is expected from the talks between Indian foreign secretary Salman Haider and Pakistan foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmad, these can prepare the ground for a credible improvement in the currently strained Indo-Pak relations through further dialogue. But there is a pre-condition that the two sides must show the needed sincerity of purpose. In April, foreign minister Gohar Ayub and India’s minister for external affairs Inder Kumar Gujral will meet each other at the SAARC foreign ministers’ conference in New Delhi.

Then, in May, prime minister Nawaz Sharif and prime minister Deve Gowda are expected to see each other at the SAARC heads of government or state meeting in Male, Maldives. The good news is that the process of top-level official parleys between the two countries has finally begun after over three years of total stalemate. No problem if it does not make any worthwhile progress in the initial stage. More important is the fact that the enemies are talking to each other.

Problems of the people of Pakistan and India are similar: the lack of health and education facilities, unemployment resulting from over-population and the horrifying rate of population growth. The list goes on. Yet, due to deep-rooted hostility, both of them continue spending enormously on defense or producing and purchasing sophisticated weaponry. How can they develop then? Simply speaking, their only path to development and progress lies in living as friendly neighbours and cooperating with each other in the various walks of life.

History tells us that ultimately it’s dialogue that helps transform inter-state adversarial relations into friendly ones. Dialogue, especially at the official level, helps remove misunderstandings and misconceptions that one enemy nation maintains towards the other.

It is the lack or the absence of the spirit of dialogue that has made matters worse for the Indians and Pakistanis. Foreign secretaries of the two countries had met in January 1994 and it was there and then that the foreign secretary-level talks between the two countries collapsed. Now, with the resumption of this process, one hopes that the two countries will be able to chalk out an effective agenda for the normalization and improvement of their bilateral relations.

In terms of normalizing its relations with India, Pakistan is surely negotiating from a position of strength. It has a strong government. India has a weak government. And weak governments are always afraid of taking bold initiatives in controversial areas of foreign affairs. For instance, the survival of the current Indian regime of Deve Gowda rests on its coalition arrangement with the Congress Party. The moment the Congress withdraws its support, Gowda will fall. Even though it is unlikely that the Congress will take a stand against Gowda’s going for peace with Pakistan, some events of the last few weeks indicate some sort of resistance to the Indo-Pak peace process from the Indian side.

Last month, the Indians officially blamed Pakistan for sending a pilotless intruder into Indian territory. Then, last week, they said they had got hold of an Indian army Major who was allegedly spying for Pakistan. The latest Indian charge against Pakistan was that it had dug an across-the-border tunnel. The rapidity with which these charges have been leveled against Pakistan shows a visible move from the Indian side to sabotage the negotiating process that has just started.

Kashmir, trade, Siachen and some other issues form the agenda of foreign secretaries’ talks between India and Pakistan. That’s what the leaders of the two sides, including their prime ministers and foreign ministers, have agreed to discuss through their mutual correspondence since the beginning of last month.

All these issues will take months and years to settle in a manner that suits the two sides. The essential thing is that a credible beginning towards their settlement must be made. Let’s hope the parleys between the two foreign secretaries should be one such beginning whose end may bring happiness and prosperity in the lives of the people of India and Pakistan.