India’s olive branch to Pakistan

October 29, 2009

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has held out an olive branch to Pakistan by renewing an offer to talk, while also calling on it to take action against militants operating from its territory.  India’s Press and Information Bureau has the excerpts of a speech delivered in Kashmir. in which Singh held out “a hand of friendship” to Pakistan. It’s worth reading in detail because it was clearly carefully prepared, endorsed politically by Congress president Sonia Gandhi who accompanied the prime minister, and according to The Hindu newspaper. an attempt to advance the peace process with Pakistan. 

India and Pakistan, he said, had made progress in peace talks started in 2004, and had been able to open up trade and travel across the Line of Control (LoC), the ceasefire line dividing Kashmir. “These are not small achievements given the history of our troubled relationship with Pakistan.”

“However, all the progress that we achieved has been repeatedly thwarted by acts of terrorism. The terrorists want permanent enmity to prevail between the two countries. The terrorists have misused the name of a peaceful and benevolent religion. Their philosophy of hate has no place here. It is totally contrary to our centuries old tradition of tolerance and harmony among faiths.

“I strongly believe that the majority of people in Pakistan seek good neighbourly and cooperative relations between India and Pakistan. They seek a permanent peace. This is our view as well.

“The cross-LoC initiatives have been well received on both sides of the border. But I am also aware that they are not as people friendly as they could be. Trade facilities at the border are inadequate. There are no banking channels. Customs facilities need to be strengthened. There are no trade fairs. The lists of tradable commodities need to be increased. Clearances for travel take time. Prisoners of India and Pakistan are languishing in each other’s jails even after completing their sentences.

“The fact is that these are humanitarian issues whose resolution requires the cooperation of Pakistan. We are ready to discuss these and other issues with the Government of Pakistan. I hope that as a result things will be made easier for our traders, divided families, prisoners and travelers. For a productive dialogue it is essential that terrorism must be brought under control.

“We will press the Government of Pakistan to curb the activities of those elements that are engaging in terrorism in India. If they are non-state actors, it is the solemn duty of the government of Pakistan to bring them to book, to destroy their camps and to eliminate their infrastructure. The perpetrators of the acts of terror must pay the heaviest penalty for their barbaric crimes against humanity.”

India broke off peace talks after last year’s attack on Mumbai and has been reluctant to resume a formal peace process until Pakistan takes more action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group accused of involvement in the assault. But with Pakistan pursuing a military offensive against Pakistani Taliban militants in South Waziristan, and facing a wave of reprisal attacks across the country, action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba has been seen as dropping down the priority list, all the more so given that it is one of the few militant groups in the country not yet believed to have targeted the Pakistani state.

That has left both countries deadlocked at a time when the region is desperately in need of stability to stem an increase in violence and help ease tensions over rivalry between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan.

The Hindu said in an editorial that the speech in Kashmir might offer a way forward. ”What the Prime Minister has essentially done is to separate out the strands of the dialogue process as it existed prior to its suspension following the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008 and raised the possibility of forward movement on the ‘humanitarian’ strands even as substantive political engagement, or ‘productive dialogue’, must await the action that India has asked Pakistan to take against the camps and infrastructure of terrorist groups and other hostile non-state actors on its territory.”

If Pakistan acted against these groups, it said, then both countries could resume a peace process on Kashmir. ”And in the interim, as a demonstration of the two countries’ stated commitment to the welfare of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, discussions on making existing cross-LoC initiatives more ‘people friendly’ can begin more or less immediately.”

Can the prime minister’s gesture make a difference?

Pakistan welcomed the offer of talks, but a foreign ministry spokesman reiterated Pakistan’s position that the correct forum was the formal peace process or composite dialogue. India has so far refused to resume the composite dialogue.

And political separatists in Kashmir in the Hurriyat Conference are unlikely to want to open bilateral talks with the Indian government if there is no progress in improving relations between India and Pakistan.

While there is little sympathy for either India or Pakistan in the Kashmir Valley after two decades of separatist revolt, few believe that a solution to the long-running Kashmir dispute can be found with one country without the support of the other. And while that would not necessarily mean India and Pakistan sitting at the same table with representatives from Kashmir, there would still need to be some form of three-way dialogue to make progress.

The Pakistan government also has its hands full already without trying to work out how to respond to any Indian overture that might eventually require politically unpopular concessions at home.

That said, both countries have been trying to improve the mood ahead of an expected meeting between the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers on the sidelines of a Commonwealth summit in Trinidad in November.

Singh’s hand of friendship could help pave the way for a more productive meeting.

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