The success of talks about talks
The Nation
April 6 , 1997
The Foreign Secretary level talks between India and Pakistan that concluded on 31 March were basically talks about talks, and we must see them only from this angle. Thus, their outcome has been very positive. The two sides discussed all outstanding issues threadbare, made an effort to understand each other’s standpoint on them, and declared to resume the negotiating process at the same level soon in Islamabad.

What else could have been expected from these negotiations? That they should have settled the Kashmir issue? That they should have resolved the Siachen conflict? That they should have led to an announcement from Pakistan’s side that it has finally decided to give the Most-Favoured Nation status to India? Well, the fact is that a breakthrough in the Indo-Pak relationship was never expected in these talks.

This is what foreign minister Gohar Ayub has also said in his statement in the National Assembly. The Foreign Secretary-level negotiations between India and Pakistan, he said, were part of a protracted process, which had made a good start. The two foreign secretaries were supposed to chalk out an agenda for future talks. Foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmed made it crystal clear to his Indian counterpart that the Kashmir issue formed the core of this agenda, and that it cannot be delinked from Siachen. Another media impression that the current crisis in Indian politics has put India-Pakistan normalization process on the back burner is also not justified. Both Gohar Ayub and Inder Kumar Gujral have clarified that even if Deve Gowda’s government goes, the normalization process will continue.

Thus by all accounts, the four-day parleys between Salman Haider and Shamshad Ahmed were a big success. They helped the two sides to understand each other. Both sides have also expressed their commitment to continue understanding each other in future. This is the only way that mutual mistrust that characterizes India-Pakistan ties will ultimately become part of history. It was due to this factor that the January 1994 foreign secretary-level talks between the two countries had collapsed.

On the Kashmir question, none of the then two foreign secretaries, J. N. Dixit and Shaharyar Khan, trusted each other. Kashmir, trade and Siachen are issues that may take months or years to settle through bilateral negotiations. However, what is needed is the reversal of an order that prevents the people of Pakistan and India from knowing and understanding each other and their respective styles of life and thought. Once this was made possible through a sustained official dialogue, the rest of the troubling aspects of this relationship would naturally start disappearing as well.

In a decision earlier last month, Gujral lifted some more visa restrictions for Pakistani applicants. Under this new package, the journalists and businessmen will not have to submit any visa fee. This was essentially a public consumption step, as this fee amounts to just 15 rupees per applicant.

For his part, prime minister Nawaz Sharif is in favour of the virtual removal of visa requirements for the people of these two countries. Nawaz is a proponent of increased cooperation between India and Pakistan on the trade and business front.

For, as he said recently, this will help people of the two countries to buy cheaper products that they respectively produce, rather than keep wasting their money buying more expensive items from elsewhere. Also under the Charter of the World Trade Organization, Pakistan has to give MFN status to India, which it has not given so far.

Official estimates put the illegal trade between India and Pakistan at nearly $2 billion. If the two sides start adhering to the WTO arrangement, this significant illegal trade will be legalized, which, in turn, will be to the official advantage of the two countries.

In addition, the West seems to be worried about the dangers associated with the proliferation of nuclear arms in South Asia. Hence, since the end of the Cold War it has been forcing both India and Pakistan to forget conflict, make peace and, thus, put an end to South Asia’s nuclear dilemma.

For its part, Pakistan has to act in accordance with its own circumstantial foreign policy compulsions. The good thing is that this time the initiative to make peace with India is also in our favour.

With a strong political government, we must come up with such peace overtures that put India in an embarrassing position before the international community, if it refuses to comply. All indications are that in the days to come, India will be more and more unstable. Even if it undergoes snap polls, the emergence of a strong government will not be possible.

Any weak Indian regime will certainly dither on acting strongly on its Pakistan policy. And, so by capitalizing on such a situation, Pakistan can show to the rest of the world a peaceful stance in terms of its regional behaviour. This is exactly what the post-Cold War period requires us to do.