Talking about Talking about Peace
17 May 2010
India and Pakistan have held talks before and the same issues that divided the two countries then remain now. The recent announcement that Pakistan and India have agreed to talk about peace talks and that the foreign ministers of each country will meet in July in Islamabad has sent muted shockwaves through both countries.

As one friend in New Delhi put it; "Talking's good. Action might be better though, but talking is all we have for the time being." In way he is right. India and Pakistan have been here before. Peace talks between the two countries have often failed because of the difficulties both countries face at home.

India is an established democracy and any deal that is seen as giving up too much to Pakistan will mean election defeat. In Pakistan, a fledgling democracy, giving up too much to India means much the same thing for its politicians.

So, it’s a delicate balancing act. What are the challenges that face Pakistan and India when it comes to peace?

Well Kashmir is at the top of the list. For both countries it forms part of the national psyche, and is split between Indian-administered and Pakistani-administered Kashmir and territory held by the Chinese.

Simply, Pakistan wants a plebiscite, a sort of inter-Kashmir vote, deciding on what the aspirations of the Kashmiri people are, whether they would like to cede to Pakistan or India, or to go for complete independence. A great book on the subject is by a Indian Kashmiri writer called Basharat Peer and it's called "Curfewed Night".

India would like the line-of-control, the dividing line between Pakistan and India, formalised and turned into an international border, citing the fact that after partition the Hindu ruler of the valley ceded to India as was his right to do so under the partition.

Over the last 60 years, Pakistan and India fought two wars over the territory and a status quo, with Kashmir split has emerged as a sort of holding pattern. However, is there any wiggle room on this issue? Can an agreement be reached?

Tariq Pirzadi is a political analyst based in Islamabad. He says; "The only thing that seems to be realistic for the leadership of Pakistan is maintaining the status quo, but that will be incredibly unpopular domestically, the establishment however is not saying this publicly but it may well be only realistic option."

But if that's the case how do you sell such an unpopular policy at home? Pirzadi says it will have to be a long term approach.

"You need to float the idea through the media, have the debate, and really try and put the message out there, that this will lead to real, sustainable peace, but right now no one in the political and military establishment has the will to do that," he says.

In New Delhi, I spoke to Ashok Mehta, a political analyst. For him the Indian government position is clear. "For India to open the door to talks some movement is required by Pakistan on terrorism, without that there can be no discussion on any other issue."

Pakistan is insisting that it is doing all it can on the issue of terrorism. That insistence may not be enough to convince the Indians. There are currently seven other men being tried for the Mumbai attacks of 26/11 in Pakistani courts. Mehta says this could really help thaw relations.

"A quick conviction of these men could remove an obstacle, but terrorism is really the key issue for India. You may remember the Indian Prime minister in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh last year tried to delink terrorism from the peace talks taking place then, there was an uproar even in his own party. Terrorism is the key."

Professor Ishtiaq Ahmad teaches international relations at the Quaid -I- Azam university in Islamabad. He thinks terrorism is a key talking point but there are other concerns.

"Pressure is coming from India and meeting Indian expectations on terrorism will be difficult because of the other issues on the table," he says.

"Pakistan will want see movement on that. Also as long there are lingering regional issues such as Palestine and Kashmir there will always be non state actors wanting to create terror. These issues need to be resolved."

But Ahmed is less optimistic that both countries will be able to eventually come to some sort of deal.

"India's current leadership is handicapped by its coalition, a strong nationalist opposition and hostile public opinion in which Pakistan is portrayed as the epicentre of terror rather than the major victim," he says.

"As long as that image endures, Indian leadership cannot be expected to meet Pakistani expectations and subsequently to act on terror as India desires."

There are of course other issues that need to be discussed. Water is the other big talking point. Pakistan says India must not build dams in its Kashmir territory that will leave farmers destitute on its side of the border. India says it has the right to build those dams and that Pakistan simply mismanages its own water supply.

But the terrorism issue seems to dwarf all of the other issues. Pakistan and India are, once again, at a crossroads. Talking about talking about peace is a start, but with so much on the table both these nuclear armed neighbours are being watched closely. Nothing will happen overnight, but eventually, most observers in the region agree, something must happen.

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