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INDIA - PAKISTAN

Positive signs of peace

Friday 12 March 2004, by CHERIAN *John

Jalil Abbas Jilani (right), Pakistan’s Director-General for South Asia, with Arun Singh, India’s Joint Secretary in the External Affairs Ministry, at the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad on February 16.

THE official talks between India and Pakistan from February 16 to 18 in Islamabad ended with both sides announcing a "basic road map" for peace. This was the first official level contact between the two countries since the July 2001 Agra summit. Both countries decided to hold a number of official-level meetings over the next six months.

The Indian side at the talks was led by Arun Singh, Joint Secretary in the External Affairs Ministry, and the Pakistani side by Jalil Abbas Jilani, Director-General for South Asia. in the Foreign Ministry. Jilani was Pakistan’s Deputy High Commissioner in India until last year. His tenure was cut short under unfortunate circumstances, when India-Pakistan relations were extremely tense. Pakistan had wanted the bilateral talks to restart at a higher level, preferably at the level of Foreign Ministers. The Indian side, on the other hand, wanted the first round of talks to be only at the Joint Secretary-level.

At the Islamabad talks, Pakistan asked for a joint agreement to ease the threat of war in the subcontinent. Pakistan wanted a "strategic restraint regime" as part of the agenda for future talks. It said that such an agreement would considerably lessen the risk of nuclear conflict in the region. India has so far only committed to a resumption of the "composite" dialogue covering eight topics, including Kashmir. Pakistani officials say that the real issue is Kashmir. The other issues that will figure in the composite dialogue, they say, have been thrashed out by the two sides at earlier talks. Agreement on issues such as Tulbul, Sir Creek and Siachen, Pakistani officials claim, could be solved overnight. They point out that both sides had almost reached an agreement on Siachen in the 1980s.

The Pakistani side is cautiously optimistic about the prospects of a lasting solution to the Kashmir issue despite the obvious reluctance of the Indian side to give primacy to the issue in the proposed road map for peace.

The Pakistani side had indicated that it would prefer the Kashmir issue to be discussed at a high political level, in a format similar to that adopted for the Sino-Indian border talks, which have been going on since the last year. External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha, while expressing satisfaction over the progress of the talks, ruled out the inclusion of "nuclear proliferation" in the region on the agenda. Sinha said that nuclear proliferation was not a bilateral issue.

The United States State Department spokesman has, meanwhile, said that India and Pakistan have travelled a long way since the time the world community expressed fears of a nuclear confrontation in the region two years ago. The spokesperson acknowledged the "supportive" role the U.S. has played in the build-up to the talks.

THERE was a danger of the latest round of talks starting off on a wrong note when an attempt was made to derail the Indian cricket team’s scheduled tour of Pakistan. Senior Indian Home Ministry officials started planting stories in some leading Indian newspapers alluding to a serious security threat to the touring Indian team in Pakistan. Minister of State for Home Swami Chinmayanand even categorically stated that the cricket team’s tour to Pakistan would not take place. The reason he gave was Pakistan’s role in nuclear proliferation. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also started echoing similar views. It was obvious that Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani was himself not favourably inclined towards the idea of an Indian team touring Pakistan, at least until such time the general elections were over. It was also being said that a defeat on the cricket field would have an adverse impact on the "feel good" image being projected by the government. Advani has been viewed as a "hawk" as far as India-Pakistan relations are concerned. Pakistani officials had attributed a lot of the blame to the Home Minster for the failure of the Agra talks.

The Pakistan government had signalled that the cancellation or postponement of the much-anticipated tour would lead to serious repercussions on the diplomatic front. On February 14, at a meeting attended by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, Advani, Finance Minister Jaswant Singh, External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha and National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, it was decided that that the tour should go ahead as scheduled in March. "After taking into consideration all aspects, it was decided that the two countries should go ahead with their cricket matches as proposed," Sinha told the media after the meeting. Restoration of cricket tours was one of the confidence-building measures (CBMs) the two sides had agreed upon, when officials from the two sides met in Islamabad during the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Summit in January.

Sinha told the media in Hyderabad in February that there was never any confusion in the minds of the government regarding the team’s Pakistan tour. He said that reviving cricketing ties was one of the important CBMs. Sinha denied that the Home Ministry had issued any adverse note on the security situation in Pakistan. He said that the Ministry’s stand on the issue was "clearly misunderstood".

The concerted campaign launched through the auspices of friendly sections of the media by the Home Ministry about the security situation in Pakistan, however, contradicts the assertions of Sinha.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

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

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