The present standoff in India-Pakistan relations is at once unreal, wasteful and dangerous. Unreal, because it has far exceeded the reasonable limits of resentment that it was supposed to express when talks between the foreign secretaries were called off last year. Wasteful, because it does not serve any national interest. On the contrary, talking points are piling up relentlessly. And it is dangerous because a long impasse can precipitate developments that neither side expects or desires.
In our times, there is growing international unease at standoffs between important countries, particularly nuclear weapons powers carrying a heavy baggage of complaints and demands, like India and Pakistan. The trend is unmistakably towards resumption of dialogue without any unrealistic expectations of an immediate détente. Standoffs are old-fashioned.
The US and Cuba have begun talks on reopening embassies, following talks in Havana between US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson and a senior Cuban diplomat, Josefina Vidal. Jacobson held a high-profile meeting with dissidents; the Cuban government did not prevent it or publicly condemn it. She also visited the home of a prominent blogger, Yoani Sanchez, where she gave an interview to the independent news site that Sanchez runs.
The freeze in relations between China and Japan thawed significantly following the famous handshake between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last year. It revived forums like the Policy Dialogue On the Mekong Region and the New Japan-China Friendship Committee for the 21st Century. Comprising of persons drawn from outside the political sphere, it serves as an advisory body for the heads of both countries. Akio Takahara, a professor at the University of Tokyo, is its secretary general on the Japanese side.
But in the Indo-Pak context, the most apposite example is US Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 11, following a steep decline in relations between the US and Russia after the latter annexed Crimea and the differences over Ukraine and Nato’s drive eastwards. Sanctions were imposed by the US and the EU. Parleys over Syria and other issues had failed.
Kerry did not go in submission and repentance to Canossa. He went to Moscow as a self-assured representative of the world’s most powerful country with a keen sense of realism and responsibility. Deadlocks resolve nothing. Without Russia’s cooperation, pressing regional issues, including Iran, Syria and Ukraine, cannot be resolved. As The New York Times Moscow correspondent, David M. Herszenhorn, remarked, “The subtle shift by the Obama administration reflects a pragmatic recognition that the policy of isolating Russia, economically and diplomatically, is failing.”
As the more powerful state, India can afford to initiate talks with Pakistan. We have so much to talk about. For example, in the absence of a direct banking system, the hawala route flourishes. Under an MoU signed in November 2005, two branches of banks of each country were to be opened in the other. Nothing was done thereafter. D.K. Madaan, head of the School of Social Sciences, Panjab University, blames the lack of political will: “Despite high-level meetings over this issue, the matter has not moved. Traders are forced to use the hawala route.”
Similarly, on March 4, 2014, the India-Pakistan Joint Working Group on cross-LoC confidence-building measures met in New Delhi and agreed on improvements in the present arrangements, including a banking mechanism to replace the medieval barter system. In the absence of political resolve, nothing moved. The restricted visa regime has become almost barbaric.
The distinguished Chinese intellectual Yan Xuetong refuted a basic fallacy in thinking about dialogues — trust is not a precondition. It grows out of sustained exchanges. The issues that led to the breach last year can be aired during the talks. The mechanism set up in the joint statement of June 23, 1987, has outlived its utility. Issues like Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek are for the top leaders to tackle. Militancy in Kashmir has ebbed, but the problem of terrorism can be discussed at the foreign ministers’ level. As for the rest — agriculture, tourism, health, education, etc — the joint commission revived on October 4, 2005, can deal with them.
We have a lot of anxieties to dispel. Pakistanis are exercised over the “Cold Start” doctrine. India is worried about the induction of tactical nuclear weapons by Pakistan. Does it make sense to hold seminars on such issues? Outside the subcontinent, India’s prestige has risen as a result of exchanges with all who matter. But its immediate neighbour, Pakistan, matters too. Few countries have so much in common; few are as estranged. All that cannot be wished away. Only a direct dialogue can resolve things before external powers press us to do so.
The writer is a constitutional expert and commentator.