28 October 2009

Manmohan ready to move on ‘humanitarian’ talks agenda

At Anantnag, Prime Minister makes fresh peace with pitch for Pakistan...

29 October 2009
The Hindu

Manmohan ready to move on ‘humanitarian’ talks agenda

Siddharth Varadarajan

In signalling his government’s readiness to discuss initiatives to strengthen people-to-people interaction across the Line of Control, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may just have hit upon a magic formula that could potentially advance the peace process with Pakistan and make life easier for the beleaguered people of Jammu and Kashmir. Without diluting New Delhi’s key demand that Islamabad act to eliminate the threat that Pakistan-based terrorist groups pose to India.

It has taken Dr. Singh three months to put the ghost of the Sharm el-Sheikh controversy behind him and he did so in a way that political India could best understand: his latest peace overture was made from a public platform in the Valley with the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, on the dais beside him.

Considerable care seems to have gone in to the structure of the Prime Minister’s speech. He first noted the advances that were made bilaterally on all issues, including on a permanent resolution of Kashmir, between 2004 and 2007. This was a time when militancy and violence began to decline. Trade with Pakistan went up three times but, more importantly for Kashmir, trade between the two sides of the divided state began. Since then, however, terrorist activities increased, eventually bringing a halt to this process of constructive engagement.

Next, the Prime Minister pointed out that existing cross-LoC initiatives 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”.

In sum, “these are humanitarian issues whose resolution requires the cooperation of Pakistan”, he said, adding that India is “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 travellers”. He added that for a “productive dialogue” it is “essential that terrorism must be brought under control”.

What the Prime Minister has essentially done is to separate out the strands of the dialogue process as it existed prior 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.

In re-examining India’s options in this manner, Dr. Singh is responding to the demands of various stakeholders in Jammu and Kashmir who have been arguing for some time that trade and other forms of cross-LoC interaction should not be held hostage to the activities of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and other extremist organisations. The Jammu Traders Association, for example, would like the current weight restriction on trucks involved in cross-LoC trade to be increased from 1.5 tonnes to 10 tonnes. There have also been demands for the two governments to work out arrangements so that Letters of Credit could be used for two-way trade.

Apart from this instrumental distinction between “humanitarian” and political issues as far as the dialogue process is concerned, Dr. Singh’s speech was also significant for the absence of accusatory language and a hectoring tone. Instead, the Prime Minister gently reminded Pakistan of the consequences of compromising with terrorism ---“Eventually they turn against you and bring only death and destruction. The real face of the terrorists is clear for the people of Pakistan to see with their own eyes”.

For years, the Pakistani military has backed extremist groups in the hope that they would weaken India’s hold over Jammu and Kashmir and force New Delhi to reach a negotiated territorial settlement. Not only was that strategy a failure as far as the India front was concerned, the growing number of terrorist attacks within Pakistan is proof that the blowback from this policy has been extremely costly. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has sought to assure Pakistan that if it takes its “ongoing actions against the terrorist groups to their logical conclusion [and] destroy these groups wherever they are operating and for whatever misguided purpose”, India will not be found wanting in its response. The fact is that the “intensive dialogue” on Kashmir between 2004 and 2007 that Dr. Singh referred to did more to address Pakistan’s core concerns than two decades of terrorist violence.

If Pakistan acts against these groups now, there is no reason why the threads of that process cannot be picked up. 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.

For the Prime Minister's latest initiative on Pakistan to work, it is essential that all players on the Indian side stick closely to the line and length he has now set. Senior ministers and officials, in particular, need to be on message, neither adding nor subtracting words, sentences and colour to Dr. Singh's formulations. Deviations will only generate confusion or, worse, retaliatory rhetoric from Islamabad, triggering yet another counterproductive spin cycle from which the relationship only emerges shaken and bruised.

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