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S M Qureshi, then and now

July 27, 2010 12:07 IST
We have to realise that S M Qureshi as Pakistan's foreign minister is under tremendous pressure when he goes to dialogue with India, notes Magsaysay Award winner Sandeep Pandey, who champions the India-Pakistan peace caravan, which will be launched from Mumbai on July 28.

On the face of it, it appears that the recent foreign minister-level talks between India and Pakistan were a failure. The blame game is on. Both sides have taken rigid positions. It is the usual India-Pakistan peace process story.

After the 26/11 incident, the peace process had derailed completely. India had refused to talk until Pakistan took action against those responsible for the attack. But then India turned around and became agreeable to talking.

Some say it was under United States's pressure. It could be India's magnanimity. It could also be that India realised that even to extract results out of the Pakistani establishment against the perpetrators of 26/11, it needed to do the talking.

Now, there is a strange thing between India and Pakistan. When meeting in private everybody, except maybe the real hardliners, will genuinely express the desire to establish peace and friendship between the two countries.

The common people on both sides have anyway gotten sick of the atmosphere of animosity. Their biggest demand has been lifting the restrictions on travel across the border.

But during official meetings, a sense of antagonism seems to take over. A fear that by talking about peace and friendship one should not appear weak.

There may not be a desire to stage one-upmanship, but there is definitely a fear that one should not appear to be giving in too much to the opposition. It becomes a matter of prestige so much so that any genuine progress in talks becomes difficult. And no side wants to appear to be overcoming their silly egos.

That is where the talks get stuck. Even if the political leadership is willing, there are elements in the military and the Inter Services Intelligence in Pakistan and bureaucracy in India who are sceptical.

When the political leadership has been forthcoming, there have been gains. Resumption of bus services, trains and trade are a few examples. Of course, these are not major gains. But even to get them in place required decisions at the highest level.

Shah Mehmood Qureshi also happens to be the Sajjada Nashin (family custodian) of the dargah of the Sufi saint Bahauddin Zakaria in Multan.

In 2005, when a Delhi-Multan peace march on the initiative of civil societies of both countries reached the mazar for the culmination of the march, he said something which people in Pakistan would normally avoid saying. He said that like the wall between the two Germanys, the border between India and Pakistan would come down one day.

In a country whose identity depends on the 'two-nation theory' and the history of Partition, a statement of this nature is seen as a threat to its existence.

In fact, peace activists from India travelling to Pakistan are alerted to not say anything, even emotionally, hinting at undoing Partition. This is immediately perceived as patronising by the big brother.

We are witnessing a different Qureshi as foreign minister. But, then, we have to realise that Qureshi as the foreign minister of Pakistan is under tremendous pressure when he goes to dialogue with India.

In addition to representing the views of his government, he has to also worry about how the army, ISI and even the terrorist groups will react to what he says or does. It is almost like walking a tight rope.

The expectation of the Indian government is that the Pakistani government will take some concrete action against those responsible for the 26/11 attacks.

Take the case of Hafiz Saeed, founder of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba. At one point in time he has been very close to the establishment. The fear in the Pakistani establishment is that any action against him could provoke him to reveal details which will put some very influential people in Pakistan in a very embarrassing situation. Hence, the FIR lodged against him doesn't even link him to the Mumbai terror attacks.

Does S M Krishna expect S M Qureshi to commit himself to handing over Hafiz Saeed to India or allow Indian interrogators access to Hafiz Saeed? Is Shah Mehmood Qureshi even empowered to take that decision?

So the expected outcome of pressure created by the Indian foreign minister on his Pakistani counterpart to produce some results on 26/11 was for Shah Mehmood Qureshi to stonewall the process by bringing up a counter issue.

It happened to be the statement issued by Home Secretary G K Pillai about the ISI's involvement in the 26/11 attack, as information received from David Headley. It could have been Kashmir.

A relationship which has continued not on the basis of trust but on a policy of 'tit-for-tat' cannot be expected to suddenly turn friendly. But as Pakistan Home Minister Rehman Malik said the consolation is that we are talking.

What option do we have but to talk? Can the Indian government afford a weaker Pakistani government? It would shudder to think that some day it might have to negotiate for peace with the army, ISI or any of the umpteen terrorist groups.

For the Pakistani government, they cannot afford more trouble than they are already dealing with. A friendly relationship with India would benefit them in more ways than one.

One area which could tangibly normalise relations and pave way for further progress on other matters is relaxation of travel restrictions across the border. Some of these restrictions don't really make any sense.

For example, if you are crossing the Wagah border on foot you require permission from your own home ministry in addition to a visa from the other country. This requirement is not there if one is going by air, train or bus.

One can leave the other country only in the same manner as one has entered. So, if you've gone to Pakistan by bus, you can't fly back.

The high commissions will not accept an application for a visa until the names have been cleared by their home ministries back home. City-specific visas are issued, restricting movement in the other country to a great extent.

The funny part is that these restrictions are blatantly violated by all those for whom they are in place -- the smugglers, terrorists and criminals. They only serve to harass the common, peace-loving citizens on both sides.

It is high time that governments on both sides move beyond paying lip service and do something to make it easier for Indians and Pakistanis to travel to each other's country.

ALSO SEE:
Forget the peace process with Pakistan!
Krishna has played into Qureshi's hands
Don't talk to Pakistan for the sake of talking

Sandeep Pandey