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A timetable for talks

Friday 12 March 2004, by MURALIDHAR REDDY*B.

India and Pakistan reconstruct the road map for the composite dialogue that was disrupted by the Kargil War, to carry forward the latest peace initiative.

in Islamabad

PROGRESS, as one commonly understands, is movement forward. But in the context of the India-Pakistan bilateral relations it sometimes involves going back, in distance as well as in time. Having moved to the brink of war in 2002-2003, the two countries had to step back in order to make peace and make a new start to resolve their differences. This is precisely what happened when the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries met in Islamabad on February 18 to consider the proposals drafted by the Joint Secretaries to carry forward the peace initiative.

Indian Foreign Secretary Shashank and his Pakistani counterpart Riaz Khokar agreed to step back to 1998 and pick up the threads from the composite dialogue interrupted by the Kargil War. It is a telling commentary on the ways of the establishments in both the countries as six precious years had been lost. The subcontinent was never so close to a nuclear war as in these tense years.

The finalisation of the time-table for a composite dialogue is a sequel to the understanding reached on January 5 after an hour-long meeting between Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and President Pervez Musharraf on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in Islamabad. A question that naturally arises is that if both sides planned to restart the process interrupted in 1998, why did it take nearly six weeks to reach an agreement on the format of the talks.

In answer to the question lies the torturous path ahead as both sides sit down to negotiate thorny issues such as Kashmir and Siachen. The sceptics are not enthused by the latest bear hugs. The drama and hype of previous moves towards peace, such as the famous bus ride by Vajpayee to Lahore, is not forgotten. The tragedy of India-Pakistan ties is that over the decades so many groups have developed vested interests in bad vibes. Even if the governments are ready, the initiative might not be entirely in their hands. This holds good more for Pakistan than for India. However, there is one reality that holds hope for the latest initiative: the changed world after 9/11. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that no country has been as shaken on account of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States as Pakistan. It has been reeling under one crisis after another since then, each having a direct bearing on the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York.

The military establishment is feeling the pinch of the growing perception in the international community (read U.S.) that Pakistan is the epicentre of terrorism. Since Al Qaeda with its headquarters in Afghanistan was seen as the architect of the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban came under the scrutiny of Washington. Perceived as the patron of the Taliban, Pakistan was not far behind. Islamabad lost its so-called strategic depth and two decades of geo-political investment in Afghanistan once it was forced to withdraw support to the Taliban. The Musharraf regime is still reeling under the chain reaction of the development. From the Taliban the focus shifted to ultra-Islamic outfits and the jehadis (holy warriors). Ultimately it came down to Kashmir.

Significantly, none other than Musharraf brought out the challenges faced by Pakistan in the context of the changed realities. Addressing a government-sponsored Ulama and Mashaikh convention around the same time the Foreign Secretaries were putting their signature to the road map for a composite dialogue, he made a passionate appeal to the clergy to eliminate terrorism and extremism. Musharraf focussed on the theme of measures needed to be undertaken by Pakistan to undo the "four dangerous perceptions" prevailing about the country in the world community. He observed that Pakistan could suffer economically and face United Nations sanctions if these impressions were not removed. He identified sectarianism, nuclear proliferation, the alleged terrorist activities in Afghanistan and those in Kashmir from the soil of Pakistan as the challenges. Indeed, the head of the state of Pakistan was bracketing Kashmir with Afghanistan after assertions for years that what was going on in Kashmir was an "indigenous freedom struggle". Musharraf launched a diatribe against religious parties and individuals preaching jehad (holy war) and said that only the state had the right to declare jehad. "What kind of a country is ours where anyone incites people to take to arms in the name of jehad. This is not jehad," he said, amidst thumping of desks. Once again a remarkable statement considering that Pakistan was the transit camp for people from all over the world for the `jehad’ in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1988. Of course, the U.S. and several Arab and Western countries were part of the venture.

There is little doubt that the new world and the vulnerabilities of Pakistan after 9/11 have contributed in a big way to the new approach of the Pakistan military in its dealings with India. The latest technology leak scandal involving nuclear scientists has only made the situation worse for the rulers. Against this backdrop, one has to read the progress on the India-Pakistan dialogue.

AS per the programme finalised, the talks are to begin at the level of Foreign Secretaries in May or June to discuss confidence-building measures (CBMs) on peace and security and Jammu and Kashmir. The road map, which has been sketched keeping in mind the general elections in India which are due in April-May, covers all the eight subjects identified in the 1998 format for composite dialogue. The first round is to culminate in a summit between the Foreign Ministers of the two sides some time in August to review the progress. A preparatory meeting at the level of Foreign Secretaries will precede it.

Significantly, the two sides have also agreed to hold expert-level talks on nuclear CBMs in May as agreed in the Lahore Declaration of February 1999. This would be followed in June by parleys on drug trafficking and smuggling. It is for the first time that the Musharraf government has incorporated an element of the Lahore Declaration into its official policy. Musharraf has been critical of the Lahore accord for what he had termed as its "passing" reference to Kashmir. The Lahore pact had said that respective governments "shall take immediate steps for reducing the risk of accidental or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons and discuss concept and doctrines with a view to elaborating measures for CBMs in the nuclear and conventional fields, aimed at prevention of conflict".

Talks on Siachen, the Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation project, Sir Creek, economic and commercial co-operation and promotion of friendly exchanges in various fields would be held at the already agreed levels in July. Secretaries or senior officials of the Ministries/departments concerned would take part in meetings on other subjects. Besides, a technical-level meeting between the Director-General of the Pakistan Rangers and the Inspector-General of the Border Security Force would be held in March-April. It has also been decided to strengthen further the contacts between the Directors-General of Military Operations of India and Pakistan.

The public posturing of Pakistan was that it wanted the talks to begin at the political level. However, it is also aware of the pitfalls in the process beginning at a higher level, as it would raise high expectations. Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri has been harping on the need for a settlement of the Kashmir dispute before Musharraf gives up his job as Army chief as promised. It is a bold and risky argument. Kasuri is known for his outspokenness. The moot point is, could he be talking on such a sensitive subject without the nod from the top? The risky part of the thesis is, would any accord with Musharraf hold when he is no longer a serving general. As one diplomat quipped, Kasuri seems to say: "Please conclude a Kashmir deal before the duck becomes lame duck."

See online : Frontline


in Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 05, February 28 - March 12, 2004.

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