The Amritsar opportunity

Sartaj Aziz’s participation in the Heart of Asia Conference on Afghanistan is a chance for India and Pakistan to defuse tensions, so that they can get back to talking with each other.

Written by Saifuddin Soz | Published:December 2, 2016 12:02 am
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The government of India will be rightly concerned with the attacks in Pathankot and Uri that were carried out by terrorists who happened to be from Pakistan. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s chief advisor on foreign policy, Sartaj Aziz, has announced that he will be visiting India to represent his country at the Heart of Asia Conference on Afghanistan, at Amritsar, on December 3 and 4. That is a welcome
announcement.

On October 8, the Associated Press of Pakistan quoted Aziz as saying in a TV interview, that there is no chance of a breakthrough in ties with India under PM Modi. He also said that Pakistan has been resisting India’s hegemonic attitude in the region and it has been calling for the promotion of bilateral ties on an equal basis. I was deeply puzzled by the statement, especially because Aziz is not known to be very hawkish. I had also felt uneasy because, at a critical moment in the history of India-Pakistan relations, such advice to PM Nawaz Sharif would not serve any purpose. I wondered how Aziz could expect a politician who suits Pakistan’s interest to be elected as the prime minister of India. His remark was uncalled for and certainly off the mark. But even with all of Aziz’s angularities, the opportunity at Amritsar could be utilised to initiate a process of discussion on the composite agenda agreed to by both countries.

The government of India will be rightly concerned with the attacks in Pathankot and Uri that were carried out by terrorists who happened to be from Pakistan. Pathankot and Uri will remain in the minds of Aziz’s counterpart from India, who is expected to participate in the Amritsar conference. But then, there is a broader question with which the Indian nation is concerned: Whether or not talks should be held with Pakistan? The hawks will be ready with the answers and they will be loud and clear. They will argue with facts and figures and show that it is advisable not to open discussions with Pakistan. But there is another issue that has to be addressed. It hinges on the proposition that our neighbourhood can never be changed. India has to deal with Pakistan, which will decide for itself whether it wants to remain in perpetual animosity with India or extend genuine friendship and cordiality, that is in its own interest as a nation state. Fortunately, the intellectual class in India, that enjoys some access to the power elite, is not entirely hawkish. India’s civil society should raise the matter.

I have a feeling, which is shared by a very large section of the civil society in both India and Pakistan, that the circumstances in Pakistan are such that PM Nawaz Sharif is not free enough to take action against the terrorist groups in the country. The hawkish elements in India must know that the chief justice of Pakistan, Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali, had slammed some political parties in Pakistan for endorsing terrorism. On September 19, Geo News had quoted Jamali as saying, “It is disappointing to see some political parties supporting terrorists for their own interests”. The chief justice had also remarked that terrorists were targeting courts in Pakistan in order to instill fear among lawyers and judges.

A large section of the civil society of Pakistan feels that Nawaz Sharif faces a very dangerous situation created by the terrorist groups in that country. In spite of its differences with the prime minister on many issues, Pakistan’s civil society feels he is doing his best to combat terrorism. There are credible reports that Pakistan’s civil society wants the army to stay in the barracks — or wherever it is needed — and leave the political system alone.

The hawks on both sides would always want a deadlock in talks between India and Pakistan. But such a policy doesn’t suit India as a nation that is committed to peace and development in the region. The government of India would be well-advised to think creatively and imaginatively about two crucial aspects of India-Pakistan relations. One, India cannot afford to play a game to suit the hawkish elements whose vision is decisively blurred. They don’t seem to take a broader view of the situation and argue that India should pressure Pakistan into appreciating its perception. They also think that a tough stand alone will yield better results on the ground. The hawkish elements also feel that the government of India has to act sternly in order to conform with the RSS’s views on relations with Pakistan. But it is not that easy for the Indian government to adopt such a posture. My second point pertains to the current international situation: All countries want India and Pakistan to resume dialogue and solve their problems including Kashmir, bilaterally.

There is a widespread feeling in the subcontinent that India’s hawkish attitude will only weaken the moderate and democratic elements in Pakistan The hawks in Pakistan will get strengthened and their views on expanding terrorist activities are well-known. I feel extremely sad at the terrorist attack on the army camp at Nagrota in which seven soldiers were killed. The incident is doubly deplorable because it will give the hawks in India a chance to reassert that Pakistan will never stop promoting terrorist activities.

Aziz had, very recently, said that the forthcoming meeting would provide an opportunity to defuse the tensions between the two countries. He will be the first senior dignitary from Pakistan to visit India after relations between the two countries touched a new low. The hawkish elements on our side must also know something, which I know better as a Kashmiri, that any breakthrough in talks with Pakistan will have a salutary effect in strife-torn Kashmir. If all of us agree, as we should, that war between the two countries is neither desirable nor possible, then, we must give mutual understanding and peace a chance.

The writer is a senior Congress leader and a former Union minister