In 1963, residents of Delhi were witness to talks between Pakistan’s then-foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his Indian counterpart Swaran Singh, as the two met to discuss their countries’ future — in addition to dining in some of the city’s premium restaurants.
The two leaders eventually held several round of fruitless talks, prompting a number of jokes about the purpose of the engagement. Since then, the Singh-Bhutto talks have become a metaphor to describe the pessimism over any high-level engagement between India and Pakistan.
The foreign ministers of two countries met again on July 27, and the passage of time has only increased the number of issues bedeviling relations between the two countries. This time, Pakistan was led by thirty-four-year-old foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, while India was represented by seventy-nine-year old SM Krishna. The talks are being held at a delicate juncture of South Asian politics. Aside from dealing with the regular gamut of bilateral differences – from Kashmir, to Siachen, to terrorism — there are worries that American withdrawal from Afghanistan may result in a revival of the India-Pakistan rivalry making its way into Afghan territory.
Senior Pakistani politicians from the opposition questioned the ability of their young foreign minister to fully defend and articulate Pakistan’s interests before the Indian political leadership. Indian commentators had their own reservations, describing Khar as a nominee of Pakistani military which is against any rapprochement with India.
Yet it seems at first blush that the naysayers have been proved wrong on both sides. The two ministers covered a fair bit ground in the bilateral relationship, discussing counter-terrorism measures, including progress in the Mumbai attacks trial in Pakistan, the disputed Siachen glacier, and made some real tangible progress on the contested issue of Jammu and Kashmir. Both sides announced some concrete confidence-building measures to promote interactions between the people of Indian-administered and Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir. These measures formed the operative portion of the 21-point joint statement released after their meeting, though the rest of the statement was more focused on demonstrating good intent than engaging in substantive discussion of various other aspects of the relationship.
The slow but important movement on Kashmir shows that the two countries have not jettisoned the unsigned agreement between Indian president Manmohan Singh and former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf negotiated between 2004 and 2007, which was committed to taking a people-centric approach to the disputed region. The main idea was to infuse realism as well as humaneness into negotiations, and the agreement was premised on the idea that the people of the region, on either side of the Line of Control (LoC), should be the driving force behind the peace process. One concrete idea was to put "soft borders" into place, and another proposal would have created institutional mechanisms for political leaders from both countries to discuss common areas of interest. But due to the political instability in Pakistan, the agreement was not fully put into operation.
Yesterday’s statement indicates an intention to strengthen LoC trade mechanisms between the two parts of the disputed region. Trade was started between the two sides on 22nd November, 2005, but the rules surrounding this trade have been archaic. At present, there is a barter system in place in the absence of an agreement on a common currency. The statement said the designated authorities will resolve operational issues concerning cross-LoC trade through "regular interaction." It is still not known whether the two designated authorities on either side of the LoC will have the say to decide on the common currency.
Another important step forward was on the decision to convene separate meetings of the Expert Groups on Nuclear and Conventional confidence-building measures in Islamabad in September of this year. This can be a possible first move in initiating a process to slow the nuclear arms race in South Asia.
The challenge before for political leaders in India and Pakistan will now be to create momentum in their own countries in support of the peace process. Yesterday, Khar reached out to India’s opposition and Hindu-nationalist BJP party leader LK Advani, who was born in Karachi but immigrated to India after the 1947 partition of the subcontinent. There may be similar efforts by the Indian political leadership to reach out to the opposition in Pakistan.
Admittedly, other meetings Khar held did not go over so well; some in India objected, for instance, to her meeting with both factions of All Party Hurriyet Conference, Kashmiri political groups that advocate secession from India. Khar defended her position and stated that India, as a democratic entity, should not have any objections if "she meets anybody who is an important stakeholder in [the Kashmir] domain." The issue didn’t gain much traction after the initial controversy, and many in India accepted was acceptance of the fact that the two countries had divergent views on the issue.
Even the Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah stated that he was not worried about the meeting, but added Pakistani political leadership should also engage with the non-separatist leadership from the region. And during the 2004-2007 peace process, Musharraf stated that leaders of all shades of opinion from Jammu and Kashmir should be taken on board to settle the issue.
The relationship between India and Pakistan currently rests at a delicate equilibrium. Outside the mainstream political space, the forces bent on acting as spoilers remain active. In the past, prominent terrorist attacks have often coincided with moves to improve India-Pakistan relations. On November 24, 2008, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari declared that his country would not be the first to use nuclear weapons against India and would work towards opening trade with their eastern neighbor. Two days later, India witnessed the most gruesome attack in its history, as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) fighters held Mumbai hostage on live television for days, slaughtering and burning their way through India’s financial capital and killing 164 people. Some of the recent reports in the Pakistani press indicate a resurgence in the activities of banned militant outfits in Punjab province, for instance.
But despite the many roadblocks and difficulties ahead, this most recent foreign ministers’ meeting was certainly a small step forward in resolving one of the most complex and complicated relationships in international affairs today.
Luv Puri is a political analyst, who has written two books on South Asian political and security issues. His book Across the Line of Control, based on field work in Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir will be co-published by C. HURST & CO. (PUBLISHERS) LTD in July 2011 and Columbia University Press in the fall of 2011.