India and Pakistan: looking beyond the rhetoric

September 5, 2009

With so much noise around these days in the relationship between India and Pakistan it is hard to make out a clear trend.  Politicians and national media in both countries have reverted to trading accusations, whether it be about their nuclear arsenals, Pakistani action against Islamist militants blamed for last year’s Mumbai attacks or alleged violations of a ceasefire on the Line of Control dividing Kashmir. Scan the headlines on a Google news search on India and Pakistan and you get the impression of a relationship fraught beyond repair.

Does that mean that attempts to find a way back into peace talks broken off after the Mumbai attacks are going nowhere? Not necessarily. In the past the background noise of angry rhetoric has usually obscured real progress behind the scenes, and this time around may be no exception.


The Hindu newspaper reported on Sept 1 that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may meet either the president or prime minister of Pakistan on the sidelines of a Commonwealth summit in Trinidad in November. It said the Indian government was already working out what strategy to adopt to make any meeting meaningful, while also pushing Pakistan to take more action against Pakistan-based militant groups in order to prevent another Mumbai-style attack.

There is no confirmation of that Trinidad meeting, and nor is there likely to be for some time, but The Hindu in recent months has proved to be well informed about the prime minister’s approach to Pakistan. Singh himself laid out his plans in a speech in parliament in July in which he promised a “step by step” approach to dialogue – effectively meaning that India would talk to Pakistan while refusing for now to reopen a formal peace process broken off after the Mumbai attacks.

The two countries’ foreign ministers are also expected to talk on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York this month, although it is unclear whether this would be preceded by a meeting of foreign secretaries in line with an agreement reached in July that the top diplomats of India and Pakistan should meet ”as often as necessary”.  The Hindu said the foreign secretaries would meet in New York; more recent newspaper reports have called this into question.


In the meantime, both countries are edging forward in their approach to the two parts of Jammu and Kashmir which they control. (After their first war in 1947/48 the former princely state was divided into the regions of Ladakh, Kashmir and Jammu which are held by India, and the regions of Gilgit and Baltistan along with an area known as Azad Kashmir which are held by Pakistan.)

According to Praveen Swami, a Kashmir expert at The Hindu, the Indian government has been holding secret talks over the summer with the main political separatist alliance in Kashmir, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, to try to agree an approach to bring peace to the region. ”Perhaps most important,” he said, “Pakistan is being asked to endorse the talks.”

Over on its side of the border, the Pakistan government has decided to grant limited autonomy to Gilgit and Baltistan. It had previously run the region  directly from Islamabad, much to the irritation of local people who felt they had been deprived of their political rights to the kind of self-rule given to Pakistani provinces. 

To digress briefly into history, the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was created in the 19th century by Hindu Dogra rulers expanding outwards from their base in Jammu and comprising people of different linguistic, ethnic and religious groups.  Were it not for the tremendous importance given to Jammu and Kashmir by both India and Pakistan – both of which claim the state in full – it might have broken up naturally years ago.

The people of Gilgit and Baltistan never felt much loyalty to the former maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir and have long complained that they have been held hostage to the Kashmir dispute (you hear the same complaints from Ladakhis on the Indian side.)

So do the parallel moves on both India and Pakistan suggest both countries are taking small steps towards an eventual dismantling of the former princely state which would allow a settlement of the long-running Kashmir dispute? Not quite – Pakistan has been careful to say it is not giving full provincial status to Gilgit and Baltistan. There are also historical grounds for treating the region differently from other parts of Jammu and Kashmir, which date back to partition and before.

Yet given that anything to do with Jammu and Kashmir is potentially explosive, reactions to the Pakistan government’s move on Gilgit and Baltistan have so far been relatively muted. Dawn newspaper said that the decision stuck a balance between meeting the aspirations of its people for political rights and maintaining the region’s status as disputed territory. The Daily Times said that the people of Gilgit and Baltistan had been held hostage to the Kashmir dispute for long enough and should eventually be incorporated as a full province of Pakistan. On the Indian side, I’ve seen criticism from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party but nothing from the government.

A roadmap for peace sketched out by Singh and former president Pervez Musharraf in 2007 effectively acknowledged the division of the state by accepting there would be no exchange of territory between the two countries – although both pledged to try to make borders irrelevant. That agreement was shelved when Musharraf’s own political fortunes nosedived.  But are the governments of India and Pakistan nonetheless following some of the signposts in that roadmap despite all the angry rhetoric currently dominating their relationship? And if so, how far are they exchanging information about their plans?


Just in case the above looks too rosy a view on the prospects of progress in relations between India and Pakistan, it is probably worth remembering it can all go wrong, particularly if there is another major militant attack in India.

The other wild card comes from the transformation of the political landscape in India with the implosion of the opposition right-wing BJP initially triggered by the furore over a book on Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah by former senior BJP leader Jaswant Singh. So far the jury remains out on how the political drama will play out. Analysts variously predict a collapse of the right, or its opposite – a revival of the right as the BJP returns to its hardline anti-Pakistan Hindu nationalist roots in an attempt to reinvent itself after losing two consecutive general elections. Until the political landscape becomes clearer, India’s Congress-led government is likely to tread cautiously.

(Reuters file photos: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Siachen; Singh with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari in Russia; Dal lake in Srinagar; Drass on the Line of Control; former Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh)


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