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Indo-Pak dialogue: Time to expand basket of issues of concern

February 05, 2010 14:58 IST

It is time to talk to Pakistan and restart the stalled composite dialogue process, says strategic expert B Raman.

Since the beginning of this week, the government of India has initiated two moves to expand the scope of the interactions with the government of Pakistan, which have remained stunted since the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai by the Lashkar-e-Tayiba.

The terrorist attacks brought the structured, formalised composite dialogue on the various issues coming in the way of the normalisation of bilateral relations to a state of suspension. They did not interrupt the normal official interactions between the two governments. However, these have remained in low key with no new ideas or new initiatives.

While not making any substantive move to resume the composite dialogue despite repeated demands to do so from Pakistani leaders and entities in the same direction from the US, the government of India has initiated two moves to re-vitalise the interactions at the political and professional levels, presumably in order to test the waters for a resumption of the composite dialogue process at a later stage.

The first move -- at the political level -- is the decision that Home Minister P Chidambaram will participate in the SAARC home/interior ministers' conference, which is scheduled to be held in Islamabad later this month, and hold bilateral discussions in the margins of the conference with Rehman Malik, his Pakistani counterpart. There has been no high-level political visit since 26/11.

The bilateral discussions, if approached seriously by the two governments, should be useful in exchanging notes on the progress of the investigation and prosecution of the 26/11 conspiracy by the LeT and in laying the groundwork for establishing a tradition of mutual legal assistance between the principal investigation agencies of the two countries. This has to be a political decision and only the two ministers would be able to take such a decision.

Malik has been a trusted associate of President Asif Ali Zardari and was a confidante of the late Benazir Bhutto since 1996. Though his relations with Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani and the military-intelligence establishment are not very good, he should be able to speak with authority on behalf of Zardari. Moreover, he is an ex-police officer, who had held a senior position in Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency, which, inter alia, investigates and prosecutes major terrorism-related cases. He has more the mindset of a Pakistani police officer than of an army officer and has not been known for obsessive anti-India feelings.

The second move -- at the professional level -- is the reported invitation by Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao to her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir, to visit New Delhi on mutually convenient dates 'to discuss terrorism and any other issue that could lead to peace between the two neighbours'.

While there should be no problem with regard to Chidambaram's visit to Islamabad and his bilateral discussions with Malik, it remains to be seen whether the Pakistani foreign office would go along with the wording of the reported invitation, which does not make any reference to a resumption of the composite dialogue. There is a possibility though that the US will strongly nudge Pakistan to respond positively to the invitation without insisting on a reference to the composite dialogue.

There has been some valid criticism from sections of the New Delhi-based community of retired officers of what they view as the haste shown by the ministry of external affairs in rushing with the invitation instead of waiting to see what transpires during the home minister's visit. I subscribe to this criticism.

Now that an invitation has reportedly been issued, we have to examine what should be the agenda of the proposed interactions between the two foreign secretaries if Pakistan responds positively.

While re-vitalising these interactions, it should be our endeavour to expand the basket of issues of concern to India, which have arisen since the format of the composite dialogue was agreed upon when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister and which are not discussed specifically now.

While the issue of mutual legal assistance between the principal investigation agencies should be the concern of the two home/interior ministers, there are two other issues, which should be brought within the scope of the interactions between the two foreign secretaries.

These are the continuing threats to the security of the Indian diplomatic missions in Afghanistan and Bangladesh from Pakistan-based terrorists and action by Pakistan to neutralise those threats and the dangers of Al Qaeda and its associates getting hold of weapons of mass destruction material and how to prevent them.

Pakistan's initial reaction to the addition of these issues could be negative, but that should not discourage us from raising them.

B Raman