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Give Sharif a chance

Why India’s leadership needs to break with the past,reimagine Pakistan

Written by Raza Rumi |
August 9, 2013 4:09:51 am

Why India’s leadership needs to break with the past,reimagine Pakistan

India-Pakistan relations are once again in the spotlight and for the usual reasons. The two states have perfected the art of using their soldiers,prisoners and fishermen as pawns for advancing the cause of nationalism. The recent escalation of tension concerns that problematic,arbitrary border called the Line of Control (LoC),which encapsulates everything that went wrong with the 1947 arrangements for post-colonial India.

The killings in the Poonch sector and the reported deaths of civilians on the Pakistani side continue the trend set at the start of the year,when the reported beheading of Indian soldiers took place. The January 2013 incident was preceded by the death of a Pakistani soldier. The confrontation prompted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to make the remark that it cannot be “business as usual” with Pakistan. Later,in July,Pakistan claimed that one of its soldiers was killed in unprovoked firing,while another was seriously wounded.

The reactions from India and Pakistan on the LoC killings are on expected lines and only speak of limited imagination on both sides. Pakistan has denied that its forces killed the Indian soldiers. The Indian defence minister made a statement that led to further uproar,that the alleged killers were terrorists wearing military uniforms. The facts of this case are still not clear and unfortunately will remain trapped in jingoistic interpretations.

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The timing of this incident could not have been worse. Pakistan has a new prime minister,who is firmly committed to peace with India and wants to move towards it at a “historic” speed,which Pakistani realists have advised him against. Sharif,however,is a determined man and wants his legacy to be formidable. Sadly,the Pakistan he governs after a hiatus of 16 years is a changed polity. Today’s Pakistan faces an existentialist crisis,whereby the militant groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — ideologically aligned with al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban — intend to decimate the state. In the first 50 days of Sharif’s rule,there have been about 52 terrorist attacks,targeting civilians,minorities,security installations and tourists,among others. The government is struggling to frame a new security policy and take charge of the country’s foreign policy. But all of this is going to take time.

Since the May 2013 elections,Sharif has outlined his India policy in no uncertain terms. Other than boosting trade and investment,he has also made it clear that he will not allow Pakistani soil to be used against other countries. The new policy is yet to be consolidated but the recent announcements on the resumption of a bilateral integrated dialogue were most encouraging. The expected meeting of Prime Ministers Sharif and Singh is due in September,on the sidelines of the annual UN meet. Once again,the peace process runs the risk of being jeopardised.

To Pakistanis,the ploy of terrorists camouflaging themselves as security officials is familiar. In the recent past,several TTP attacks have been carried out in a similar fashion. Militants increasingly use military or police uniforms to bypass security checks. Further,the jihadi groups in Pakistan would be the net losers if the peace process with India continues.

Much has been said in the Indian media about the Pakistan military not backing trade with India. Undoubtedly,the military is structured to fight an “enemy” and in Pakistan’s case,this has been India from the very start. Having said that,there have been subtle shifts in the military’s appraisal of threat perception and its leadership has made public statements that the extremists are a greater threat to Pakistan’s future. Given the Afghanistan situation and the anticipated spillover of the Nato pullout in 2014,Pakistan’s military would not risk contending with two fronts. Public opinion has also shifted in recent years,as surveys by Gallup Pakistan show that most Pakistanis back increased trade with India. Most importantly,the political elites,across the board,have a consensus on moving forward with the peace process.

In such a climate,the non-state actors,who have grown in size and strength over the years,are a threat to Pakistan as well as to regional stability. There is no question that Pakistan should take effective action against these groups,which can potentially bring the neighbours close to war. This must be avoided. India,for its part,has to show greater strategic empathy and take a long-term view of its Pakistan policy. Its current policy,cynics say,comprises a series of knee-jerk reactions and disparate voices from its various power centres,including the military.

In 2003,both countries had agreed to a ceasefire at the LoC,which continues to hold,and in the troubled annals of our recent history,has proved to be a workable model. The agreement needs to be revised,given the loopholes that plague it. Firing at each other remains the crudest way of expressing nationalistic passions in this day and age. India complains of incursions into the state of Jammu and Kashmir,Pakistan denies it and soldiers die in vain. The joint patrols and hotlines established were conceived as mechanisms to avoid such clashes and the unnecessary deaths of soldiers. There is a critical need to devise new mechanisms,such as increased demilitarised zones across the LoC. Such eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation on the LoC once again underscores the necessity of dealing with the Kashmir issue and not treating it as the invisible elephant in the room. General Musharraf and Manmohan Singh had come close to agreeing on the famed four-point formula,which remains a wise 21st-century solution to a 20th-century imbroglio.

India-Pakistan talks must proceed as planned. They would provide the best forum to raise the issue of bilateral disputes and confront the problem at hand. The tendency of the two states to involve the media before the diplomatic channels has emerged as a destabilising factor. Media freedoms and reporting are essential but the two countries must not allow TV anchors and reporters to frame and drive policy. There has to be a new start. Giving Sharif a chance should be part of India’s new Pakistan policy,of which stabilising and supporting Pakistan’s democracy should be the central plank. The transition from a bureaucratic model to a new way of imagining Pakistan would require some fresh thinking and bold leadership in India. Similarly,Pakistan’s new administration will have to take charge of the India policy if it wants to avoid known blunders and pushing the region into a nuclear conflict.

Rumi is director of the Jinnah Institute,a Pakistani think tank,and author of ‘Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller’ (Harper Collins,2013). Views are personal express@expressindia.com

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