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Indo-Pak dialogue: Reckless gamble or cautious first step?

July 30, 2009 14:17 IST

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh surprised many of his own advisers and supporters by issuing a joint statement at Sharm-al-Shaikh in Egypt with his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani, which pledged to resume the bilateral dialogue process. It was widely expected that the dialogue, suspended after the Mumbai terrorist attacks last November, would be re-started only after Pakistan shows a credible commitment and takes visible action to bring the attacks' perpetrators to justice. India has repeatedly reminded Pakistan that it must abide by its solemn pledge to fight terrorism directed at India from its soil.

Admittedly, the signs of this happening are still tentative -- although Pakistan's 36-page dossier given to India does name Lashkar-e-Tayiba's Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi as the attacks' mastermind and admits that Ajmal Amir Kasab and other attackers are Pakistani nationals. Again, the Pakistan government's charge-sheet against them contains valuable evidence gathered by its official agencies, which adds significantly to what was provided by New Delhi. Islamabad has now brought the case to the prosecution stage. How the prosecution itself proceeds, and whether the culprits are punished quickly, is an open question.

So was Dr Singh right to have convinced himself that Pakistan means business this time and therefore that the stalled dialogue should resume, albeit gradually, at the foreign secretary level? Was he justified in issuing the joint statement which said: "Action on terrorism should not be linked to the composite dialogue process and these should not be bracketed"? Was he on the defensive when responding to the criticism of the joint statement and stressing that he hadn't diluted India's stand demanding firm Pakistani action against terrorism?

The "delinking" has raised a furore. The Bharatiya Janata Party and hawkish former diplomats and soldiers have pounced on the formulation and accused Dr Singh of "surrender", capitulation to external pressure, and worse. Even the ruling Congress has distanced itself from the phrase. L K Advani has charged Dr Singh with breaching the national consensus that there should be no talks with Islamabad unless it resolutely acts against jihadi groups.

Worse, the statement's reference to Balochistan has been attacked as signifying India's admission that it has clandestinely fomented trouble in that restive province. This will allow Pakistan to claim moral parity between India's suspect behaviour in Balochistan and its own long-standing support to violent separatism in the Kashmir Valley.

These criticisms are largely misdirected and based on the misperception that the composite dialogue has already been resumed and will continue full tilt no matter what Pakistan does. In fact what Dr Singh and Gilani agreed to was much more limited and laced with caution. As Dr Singh told Parliament, no "meaningful process of engagement" can move forward unless and until Pakistan shows real progress by taking measures to control terrorism and bring the Mumbai attacks' perpetrators to book.

The "delinking" formulation is rather inelegant, awkward and ambiguous. Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon has admitted as much. It can be interpreted by either side to suit its domestic political exigencies or convenience. Pakistan can claim that it has succeeded in getting India to resume the bilateral dialogue even as the case against LeT operatives proceeds, but is not completed.

India can claim that it has extracted an assurance from Pakistan that it would act firmly against terrorism -- as any minimally civilised country would be expected to do --irrespective of what the dialogue produces. Both prime ministers reckoned that the delinking formulation would give them enough domestic elbow room to resume constructive engagement bilaterally.

The plain truth is that the two processes -- action against terrorism and dialogue -- have their own independent logic and dynamics. They will converge only as they gather momentum at their own respective pace. That's what genuine, positive engagement leading to d├ętente and reconciliation is all about. Both sides must recognise and respect this. Neither should act unilaterally. For instance, Pakistan shouldn't stop acting against jehadi groups if, say, talks on Sir Creek or Siachen don't make progress. On the whole, the greater onus is on Pakistan.

The Indian and Pakistani governments must hold firm against their critics and persevere with the dialogue process. Dr Singh should not be on the defensive about having made a leap of faith by agreeing to re-start the process. Atal Bihari Vajpyee did exactly that, whether in 1999, when he rode the bus to Lahore, or in January 2004, when he launched the peace process in Islamabad with General Pervez Musharraf.

There are two differences, though. The 2004 dialogue began before Pakistan took credible steps to rein in or crack down upon jehadi groups targeting India. Today, it's being resumed after Pakistan has taken more effective action against them than at any time in the last quarter-century. The 2004 launch took place on the basis of a verbal assurance by Musharraf that Pakistan would do all it can to prevent its territory from being used to attack India. Vajpayee, who had only a few months earlier ruled out talks, decided to take him seriously. The results aren't perfect. But India and Pakistan are unarguably better off after the dialogue. They even made significant progress on Kashmir in their "back-channel" discussions.

Today's context is different, and in many ways, better. Islamabad has admitted, frankly and categorically, that Pakistani nationals and militant groups indeed planned and executed the Mumbai attacks. This is a departure from the long-practised strategy of "plausible deniability" (that Pakistan has been aiding extremist groups). This is taking place when the Pakistan Army is fighting the al-Qaeda-Taliban at its western borders in alliance with and under the watch of the US-led International Security Assistance Force. This is no mock battle. Pakistan is under pressure, both domestic and from the international community, to act against terrorism and erase the stigma of being a state that nurtured it.

Pakistan is a divided and heterogeneous entity. A civilian government is in power there, which has sent serious signals hat it wants better relations with India. It has so far succeeded in keeping the hawks in check and pushed a moderate agenda in alliance with civil society forces and political organisations that are genuinely opposed to violent jehadi political Islam. The hawks and India-baiters in the Inter Services Intelligence and other military agencies have by no means been overpowered or marginalised. That can only happen when the moderates get more support.

It's in India's interest to stop treating Pakistan as a single homogenous entity and to build a strategic alliance with the moderate forces in that country which serendipitously combine an anti-extremist and anti-military outlook with a strong pro-democratisation agenda. It would be unwise for India to leave such engagement and alliance-building to the government alone.

India must open up the process up to scholars, artists, writers, cultural activists and civil society groups by facilitating their movement across the borders. There is enormous potential in such interaction, whose tapping can produce dramatic results. India should stop, and allay fears about, its clandestine activities in Balochistan, on whose existence there's some evidence and agreement in intelligence circles.

Those who hysterically accuse Dr Singh of having "surrendered" to Pakistan fail to understand or appreciate any of this. Indeed, they don't even pause to ask why Pakistan, in particular the moderates in the civilian government, are so keen to resume a dialogue with India and remain invested in that agenda despite many setbacks. Our anti-Pakistan hawks have a single refrain: Pakistan and India are destined to be enemies; no reconciliation is possible between them given the history of three-and-a-half wars, the military's dominance in Pakistan, and the festering of any number of disputes, etc.

This is a totally illiterate and a-historical judgement. It erases or trivialises numerous instances of reconciliation and fruitful friendship developing between strategically hostile rivals who forget countless wars. Take Germany and France, which were in a state of intermittent war for centuries, in which they sacrificed millions of their people. Yet, after the Second World War, they struggled hard to reach reconciliation and laid the foundations of the Common Market, which later grew into the European Community and today's 27-member European Union.

The two European rivals achieved this through a determined process of negotiation, which rejected pessimism, confronted issues head-on, and adopted a hard-nosed but positive practical approach. The process established a relationship which is called co-bonding in international relations theory.

Put simply, co-bonding involves adversaries tying each other down in a non-hostile relationship through numerous cooperative agreements, mutual interaction, and greater exposure of their citizens and officials to each other's cultures -- so that there is no backsliding into mutual suspicion, recrimination and rivalry. It's as if two wrestlers who balance each other by exerting pressure on each other had gradually moved towards a friendly embrace.

Co-bonding is precisely what India and Pakistan need. But for that to happen, both governments will have to try hard, earnestly, in good faith, not once but repeatedly. The fact that they are at least attempting another beginning is itself welcome.

Praful Bidwai