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India-Pakistan Relations: Another Initiative?

Another Initiative? Despite the cliches that have accompanied moves forward in India-Pakistan relations, prime minister Manmohan Singh

INDIA-PAKISTAN RELATIONS

Another Initiative?

D
espite the cliches that have accompanied moves forward in India-Pakistan relations, prime minister Manmohan Singh’s recent speech that flagged off the bus service between Amritsar in Indian Punjab and Nankana Saheb in Pakistan marked a politically significant occasion. The bus service, part of a series of similar operations in recent times that have sought to link estranged peoples on both sides of the border, will link, nearly 60 years after Partition, Sikhism’s holiest shrine to the site where the religion’s founder was born more than 530 years ago. The prime minister’s speech, however, imbued the occasion with a significance far more than the immediate.

The speech was politically noteworthy as it marked the Indian government’s response to overtures made in the recent past by Pakistan’s president Musharraf. On Kashmir, Manmohan Singh spoke of making the borders “irrelevant” and for “the two parts of Jammu and Kashmir” (i e, Indian and Pakistan Kashmir) to “work out cooperative, consultative mechanisms so as to maximise the gains of cooperation in solving problems of social and economic development of the region”. This is a positive response to Musharraf’s own proposal of “joint management” of Kashmir, and the first reactions from Islamabad have cautiously welcomed the prime minister’s ideas. Manmohan Singh’s speech, of course, also spoke of “normalising” relations between the two nations without seeking in tandem a solution to Kashmir – which has been the standard Indian position.

A hallmark of India-Pakistan peace initiatives, especially since the late 1990s, has been that these have been aired in public forums, perhaps endowing them with a significance and authenticity that at least guarantees a response from the other side. Since last September then, at several forums beginning with the UN assembly meet, Musharraf’s solution for a permanent peace in Kashmir has been in terms of “demilitarisation” of three crucial border towns – Srinagar, Baramulla and Kupwara

– and for their “joint management” by India and Pakistan. This suggestion has expectedly remained on paper, not merely for the fact that militants continue to pose a threat to security in these areas, but for the deep political ramifications this could have in the broader Indian political context.

Notwithstanding this, events on the ground such as the need for massive humanitarian assistance following the earthquake across both sides of the Line of Control that “divides” Kashmir, and even the imperatives of resuscitating “people-to-people” contacts, have given India-Pakistan relations their own impetus. Periodic confidence-building measures or announcements made by the Joint Working Group now appear, more than ever, to stamp into authorisation, already existing ground level realities that are geographically and even economically determined. Thus, for instance, the recent resumption of bus and railway services as well as relaxation of trade barriers via the Attari-Wagah border. On the other hand, instances that involve questions of military assertion where the “state” has been involved – such as the discussions on Siachen and the Sir Creek dispute – seem stalled in a state of near-resolution. It is this aspect defining India-Pakistan relations, where civil society initiatives appear to motivate several state policies, which makes for an intriguing experiment in how festering political disputes can hold out hopes of possible resolution in the future. For all its insistence on Kashmir being central to Indo-Pakistan relations, the peace process has seen a certain “irreversibility” despite the non-agreement on Kashmir.

However, to believe that Kashmir can be treated in “isolation” would be chimerical; both India and Pakistan, whether for reasons of strategy or to assure certain domestic constituencies, remain locked in mutually unaccommodating positions on this issue. The world since September 11, 2001 has seen major changes in geopolitical orientation, with the concomitant result that Kashmir will have to perforce be bilaterally “resolved”. As with other civil society initiatives that have induced a thaw in India-Pakistan relations, only a grassroots approach involving people from Kashmir’s diverse regions and from both sides of the border, would hold forward hopes of resolution. The tragedy is that representatives claiming to speak for the region are now limited by their own narrow constituencies and hampered by imperatives of history and politics. Ironically, and in turn, a grassroots democracy can be imbued with a greater confidence only if both countries work together in

Economic and Political Weekly April 1, 2006

mutual trust and cooperation. Fighting terrorism together is only one aspect. It is in this context that the prime minister’s speech assumes significance. His hopes for a Kashmir of the future might appear abstract in the immediate, but it holds forward a vision of enriched possibilities.

EPW

Economic and Political Weekly April 1, 2006

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