India and Pakistan: finding the right forum for dialogue

February 23, 2010

agra“Peace,” said Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw ”is not only better than war, but infinitely more arduous.”  Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao begins that arduous process on Thursday when she meets her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir to try to break a diplomatic freeze that followed the November 2008 attack on Mumbai.

 Rao, speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said she hoped to “build, in a graduated manner, better communication and a serious and responsive dialogue to address issues of concern between our two countries”.

In her speech, she insisted Pakistan must act to dismantle Pakistani-based militant groups blamed for attacks in India and Indian Kashmir. “The greatest threat to peace and stability in our region emanates from the shelter terrorists find in the border of Afghanistan-Pakistan and in Pakistan itself,” she said. ”Terror groups … continue to recruit, train and plot attacks from safe havens across our borders.”

In answer to a question about whether Kashmir would figure in her discussions, as sought by Pakistan, she acknowledged this was a subject that must be discussed bilaterally. India’s concerns about terrorism would find “essential focus”, she said  — with emphasis on the word essential — but that “obviously we would like to keep the door to dialogue open”.

The problem, as discussed  in this story, is how to structure the dialogue.  With India’s Pakistan policy decided in the prime minister’s office, the foreign secretaries can do little more than provide a supporting role in preparing the groundwork for another meeting between the two countries’ leaders, possibly on the fringes of the SAARC summit due in Bhutan in April (see pdf of the invitation from Bhutan)

Like his predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wants peace with Pakistan. He is likely to move cautiously after being criticised by his own party for giving too much ground in talks last July with Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of a non-aligned summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt.

And while many people believe that real progress will require bold steps by the two countries’ political leadership, they are a long way from the kind of summit talks which might make a breakthrough possible. A summit between Musharraf and Vajpayee in Agra in 2001 ended in disaster after the Pakistani leader tried to strike a deal directly with the Indian prime minister in an attempt to leapfrog the time-consuming preparations of their bureaucracies.  Neither country is seen as being particularly keen to repeat the experience.

Yet the composite dialogue, or formal peace process, is beginning to look a little bit tired. Since this was relaunched in January 2004 — and then broken off after the Mumbai attacks — other contentious issues, including rivalry over Afghanistan and sharing Himalayan river waters — have risen to the top of the agenda. Meanwhile, less contentious issues covered by the composite dialogue, such as resolving territorial disputes over the Siachen glacier and Sir Creek, have already been discussed at length and are more or less awaiting a leadership decision and the right climate of trust to move forward. That raises the question of whether the composite dialogue has outlived its usefulness.

Back channel talks,  secret meetings between diplomats held away from the glare of the media which made progress in sketching out a roadmap for peace in Kashmir under then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, appear, for now at least, to hold out little promise. Musharraf, speaking in London earlier this month, said these talks had “operated extremely efficiently” and he had been close to a deal on Kashmir. The new civilian government has always been reluctant to pick up exactly where Musharraf left off,  and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has since virtually disowned the deal.

While Qureshi has  appointed diplomat Riaz Mohammad Khanas a special envoy for talks with India, there are mixed reports as to whether he has held any serious discussions with his Indian counterpart Satinder Lambah, and no signs that they have begun substantial negotiations on the Kashmir road map.

This leaves an unsatisfying picture on how the two foreign secretaries are supposed to find their way back into the arduous business of peace.

(File photo of Musharraf and his wife before the Agra summit in 2001)


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