India-Pak dialogue, ball in Delhi’s court
The Nation
June 22, 1997
While this year’s second round of India-Pakistan foreign secretaries’ talks, being held in Islamabad, will conclude in a couple of days, the two sides are expected to reiterate their desire for taking the negotiating process forward to resolve their outstanding unresolved political disputes, primarily the Kashmir dispute.

And just that! In the last talks held at this level in March, foreign secretaries Shamshad Ahmad and Salman Haider had expressed a similar desire. But the events that followed those parleys spoiled the climate and the second round, which was scheduled to be held first in April and then in May, was postponed until June. For any negotiating process to make a credible progress, the most essential requirement is a conducive climate.

And the creation of such a climate depends upon the political will of the negotiating sides. Now if we look at the time between the two rounds of foreign secretaries’ talks, what becomes clear is that it is the Indian side which appears to lack this political will altogether. And that also at a time when India is being ruled by a person who, before becoming prime minister, had been giving us an impression of a diehard pacifist, a leader wishing his country and Pakistan to live as friendly neighbours.

Unfortunately, almost contrary to what Inder Kumar Gujral used to proclaim some years ago, especially in private gatherings, his prime ministership is no different from other premierships of India. Perhaps the most offensive act of India under Gujral is the recent deployment or storage of Prithvi missiles close to Pakistani borders—an act which former US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphel has now officially confirmed.

Before this, India had also raised its defense budget by 15 per cent—forcing Pakistan to raise its own defense budget by 10 per cent. Then, that story of a sonic boom created as a result of an Indian MIG fighter aircraft’s violation of Pakistani airspace.

Leaving aside these belligerent acts on the part of India, Gujral has yet to make any bold gesture in the context of the normalization of his country’s relations with Pakistan. It’s only Nawaz Sharif who has taken the lead in this sphere. Even before his election, he appeared on the Zee TV to declare that improvement of Indo-Pak ties would be one of the most important priorities of his government. Then, in one of his speeches after becoming prime minister, Sharif went to the extent of proposing the total elimination of visa restrictions between the two countries.

And, in a recent EL TV interview—which was telecast after the deployment of Prithvi and violation of Pakistani airspace by India—prime minister Sharif pledged to move forward on the negotiating process while ignoring all sorts of domestic pressures.

Pakistan had even rejoiced when Gujral became prime minister. Information minister Mushahid Hussain welcomed his appointment, citing Gujral’s and his family’s origins from a village near Jehlum and hoping the peace process would now move forward the way it should. At the Male summit meeting of SAARC leaders in April, Sharif had once again gone an extra mile, by disclosing to the press people there that India and Pakistan had decided “in principle” to set up a hot line between their prime ministers and to constitute working groups on various issues to discuss and settle them separately.

Soon after that, Indian foreign secretary Salman Haider clarified that the Indian side had not agreed in principle on the formation of the working groups—basically a Pakistani proposal made during the March round of talks between the foreign secretaries.

One fails to understand why the Indians dither on the negotiating process. Not just dither, they have taken such offensive steps since March which violate the basic spirit of a negotiating process. If the Indians continued to approach the matter in the same manner, then the foreign secretaries’ talks—or even other official parleys held at the level of foreign minister or prime minister—will become a farce. One also fails to understand why the Indians have been reluctant to constitute the working groups.

Is there any other avenue to sort out differences and disputes between the two countries? Differences and disputes that are many—and complex as well. For that matter, the Indians have settled their conflicting issues with the Chinese through a similar process. So, why not apply the same formula to Indo-Pak normalization talks as well? As regards the Prithvi deployment, it is illogical.

What kind of threat does India perceive from Pakistan whose current leadership appears to be all the more willing to make peace with India and start a workable trade relationship with it in compliance with the Charter of the World Trade Organization and in accordance with the free trade arrangements among SAARC states scheduled to be implemented by the beginning of next century?

One hopes the joint declaration that foreign secretaries Shamshad Ahmad and Salman Haider issue will be more than merely a conventional diplomatic statement. We must remember that the normalization of Indo-Pak ties is possible only through one way; that is the official way. This Track II Diplomacy—that has been going on between the retired civil and military bureaucrats of the two countries with funding primarily from the United States Ford Foundation—has no meaning. What will matter ultimately is the political will expressed officially by the two sides’ highest quarters—which include both their civilian and military leaders.

In Pakistan, Kashmir is a very sensitive issue. And, regarding Indo-Pak normalization, Pakistan’s stand in the past has been that unless the Indians first settle this core issue of Kashmir, Pakistanis would neither negotiate trade with them nor any other matter of conflict. Nawaz Sharif has gone an extra mile by reversing this basic stand. He even avoids talking about Kashmir. For what purpose? Just for the sake of a long-lasting peace between the people of India and Pakistan. In the process, Sharif must have annoyed his own military people.

If, on the one hand, we have a leadership showing the courage and boldness to let the negotiating process work viably—and which may endanger Sharif’s own political survival—on the other, we have a leadership in India which has so far utterly failed to deliver anything concrete. Recently, Gujral confessed that the decision to deploy Prithvi was made without his knowledge. Such signs of weakness from the leadership of a country many times bigger than Pakistan! It’s unbelievable.

If nothing else, the joint declaration from Islamabad may set a date for the third round of foreign secretaries’ talks in New Delhi. Ragunath, who is going to succeed Salman Haider as India’s foreign secretary, has also participated in this round of talks. What one expects from him is that he should try and convince his boss at India’s External Affairs Ministry and prime minister Gujral that unless India, being a bigger neigbour, acts more boldly than Pakistan on the peace front, the process to normalize and improve relations between the two countries will never make any head way.