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New road to an old highway

JAGAT SINGH MEHTA

After 55 years, India and Pakistan must learn to live together, at least functionally, even with some inequities of Partition. True, it is such a distant vision, but it must inspire this fateful third `try' at peace by the Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, says JAGAT SINGH MEHTA.

REUTERS

What's needed ... fostering ties and not nurturing dreams of defeat of the "enemy".

WHEN from Srinagar, the Prime Minister extended a hand of friendship to Pakistan; he took most in the Indian establishment by surprise. Media commentators, academics and seasoned old diplomats had been echoing: "No talks till total stoppage of cross border terrorism"; "Pakistan must first restore transparent democracy". Predictably the international community applauded the Prime Minister's gesture but contrary to expectations, the leaders in Pakistan accepted Vajpayee's sincerity. The reservations in India of "exercising abundant caution" was dramatically over-trumped.

The Prime Minister himself billed this third try as his final attempt at fostering Indo-Pakistan relations. He could not have forgotten the betrayal — preparations for Kargil were already underway when he journeyed with hope to Lahore in 1999 and how Agra (2000) had collapsed. The long story of deceit and disappointment is unforgettably etched on Indian minds, and so Vajpayee's initiative was a bold gamble.

Pakistan of course has its own pegs to memory. They claim the stand-still agreement following Partition was sabotaged in Kashmir; the release of post-Partition financial dues was delayed; the stoppage of waters for the West Punjab canals on April 1 threatened to smother the country at birth. Ayub Khan's offer of joint defence talks against China in 1959 as summarily dismissed and the restraint exercised during the India-China war (1962) never elicited significant accommodation in the Foreign Minister-level talks of 1963. Pakistan has also not forgotten that India attacked across the undisputed frontier in 1965. More pointedly in 1971, India intervened militarily to dismember the country. International testimony is cited of human rights abuses confirming the alienation of the Kashmiri people.

Both of India and Pakistan, the litany of accusations stretching over 50 years could be subjectively elaborated. Kashmir has been the warp and weft of domestic politics since independence. Anxiety over national security culminated in both countries testing nuclear weapons and enunciating half-baked nuclear doctrines, but they confirm the mutually reinforcing paranoia.

What frequently escapes mention in India, Pakistan and even by international scholars are that facts are conveniently chosen and no mention is made of this when problems are solved through bilateral diplomacy or with international facilitation. Many in Pakistan and some even in India prefer to forget that Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated because he wanted India to protect the Muslims and concede the rightful claims of Pakistan. The Indus Treaty had World Bank mediation and that the canal network was left untouched through two wars. Kosygin was accepted as a "facilitator" at Tashkent.

As Walt Rostow, who was national security adviser, told me, the United States fully backed the Soviet Premier's mediation. The combination of Indian restraint in not crossing the Line of Control (LoC) and President Clinton's firm intervention compelled the withdrawal of Pakistani and the non-Pakistani jehadis from Kargil.

Successes from wholly bilateral diplomacy are often overlooked. Between 1976-79, more agreements were concluded that at any other time.

The 1976 MoU was the most comprehensive ever reached; it restored diplomatic relations, civil aviation, road and rail communications and reopened State trading. These measures were completed within eight weeks and the two ambassadors synchronised the presentation of their credentials. The changed political climate had a snowballing effect. In August 1976, the Pakistani officials effectively dislodged pro-Pakistani hijackers at the Lahore airport, an eight-year-old stalemate on Salal hydel project, which was about to be consigned to international arbitration, was resolved through negotiations, resulting in the supply of power to the North India grid.

In November 1976, Pakistan actually helped India to have the Farakka item placed by Bangladesh on the General Assembly agenda withdrawn before voting — and thus saving the internationalisation of another bilateral problem. What is not noted even by international scholars, is that during this period, the LoC was scrupulously respected and so the unfulfilled commitment at Simla was de-facto observed. Atal Behari Vajpayee's visit to Islamabad marked the highest point in India's foreign policy and he won the Pakistan people's confidence. One cannot help but wonder if eminent analysts overlook the negotiated improvements because of flawed research or in order to bolster their own hawkish mindsets. My experience has been that when professionalism is perceptive and determined, governmental sagacity helps in conflict resolution both in India and Pakistan.

On the other hand serious penalties have followed from mistaken policies. The non-support of Afghan nationalism against the ill-conceived Soviet invasion is conveniently slurred over when our interest kept South Asia non-aligned while preventing the remilitarisation of Pakistan. The unconstitutional decision to dismiss Farooq Abdullah's government, precipitating Governor B. K. Nehru's resignation had dire consequences. In 1986, Farooq Abdullah, after being reappointed chief minister, authorised the blatant rigging of the elections in 1987, which led to the surge of pro-Pakistani sympathy, repression and armed insurgency (1989). Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligences (ISI) compounded the alienation of the Kashmiris.

The causes and consequences have long been transposed but what India and Pakistan fail to see is the verity that after 55 years of independence, they have the greatest concentration of poor, diseased and illiterate people in the world. Geography is unchanging; we can and have enfeebled each other. If we persist with mutual suspicions and hostility, both will be inviting national level Alzheimer's atrophy.

Atal Behari Vajpayee, like Nehru, has the loneliness of a long distance runner. He too has a sense of obligation to history. Nehru's vision, when he spoke of India's tryst with destiny, is familiar to every schoolboy. (I had the privilege to be in the gallery and saw there were tears even on the cheeks of the elderly.) Lal Bahadur Shastri, just before his fatal heart attack, as recorded by L. P. Singh, is reported as saying "Peace and good relations with Pakistan were essential if India was to preserve her soul... This was the main reason why I made the agreement."

Indira Gandhi, at Simla took an enlightened gamble for India's future, when she accepted Bhutto's plea that the permanent rationalisation of relations will not be feasible if he went back with a humiliating surrender on Kashmir. (I for one do not think a written internationalisation of the LoC would necessarily have inhibited the cross-border infiltration any more than it restrained the attack on the Twin Towers).

A.B. Vajpayee is not being politically nave: the occasion and the timing are shrewdly calculated. His initiative was obviously untutored; he might have informed the Deputy Prime Minister, but he disregarded the dossier of failures. He was articulating to the government and people of Pakistan the faith he projected from Nishan-e-Pakistan. In 1978 at Islamabad he disarmed the assembled hostile press by confessing to his long Jan Sanghi anti-Pakistan political career. This time he spoke with Syed Mufti, the new Chief Minister by his side, who in a free election had defeated the son of the Sher-e-Kashmir, and so at least half the answer to the demand for democratic self-determination in Jammu and Kashmir. But Vajpayee, knowingly has taken the risk of his long political life.

Vision and leadership has, as it must, come from above. This long march requires many small steps and wide-ranging preliminaries in confidence rebuilding. Only after overcoming multiple hurdles, can it end in the apex level dialogue. The final solution and the timeframe, only the heads can decide, but they must recognise each other's political constraints to reach a historic compromise, which would be preferable to all possible alternatives. The terrorists are misguided idealists who are likely to plan disruptions and even massacres. Anticipating such attempts could minimise the impact of setbacks. Down the line on both sides — political colleagues, higher civil servants, generals and field commanders and the media must come on to the same constructive wavelength and not sabotage the ambitious, but treacherous, journey.

Regis Debray perceptively wrote, "History advances in disguises". Only a statesman can make us contemporaneous with the present and help focus on the future. The Cold War, specifically the misguided American military pacts with Pakistan, have embedded in India deep suspicions of partiality for Pakistan. After 9/11, Musharaff and Pakistan have again become important to the U.S. but it is now primarily to hunt and defeat the Taliban. India, on the other hand, is emerging as a potential strategic bastion in Asia and the co-protector of the energy bridge from West Asia and Central Asia across the Indian Ocean.

I am pleading for burying the ugly past. As an 80-year-old impatient observer, I welcome this forward-looking initiative. As a precondition, Vajpayee and Musharaff must realistically recognise that both have a stake in each other's survival. (Notions of outside imposition or manipulated regime) change are contrary to international law and have never been consistently applied.) At present they both face the challenge to overrule or contain their respective patriotic extremists. Both will, no doubt, keep their powder dry but ultimately success will boil down to two simple, separate, but linked, propositions. First it is in the narrow vested interest of India that Pakistan must be stable and helped, at least negatively in the quest for prosperity leaving to the Pakistani people the task of regaining democracy.) A failing Pakistan, more frustrated and revanchist will continue to circumscribe India's own destiny. Second it is in the self-centered interest of Pakistan, that India remains a secular state and is able to exert its full power to protect and cherish the 140 million Muslim citizens of a neighbouring country. Pakistan should not rely on non-reaction of the Indian people at the prospect of radical political unscrambling in Kashmir. No democratic government in India, however, well-intentioned, may be able to save the Muslims from the fate, which befell the Hindus and Sikhs in West Pakistan in 1947 or the Bihari Muslims in Bangladesh after 1971.

Three hundred odd million people belonging to the middle class have responsibilities for the fate, the livelihood and moderating the growing cynicism and, perhaps selective desperation amongst a billion people subsisting below the poverty line on both sides of the frontier. They can no longer be lulled by national self-righteousness or unrealistic dreams of defeat or disintegration of the "enemy". After 55 years, both must learn to live functionally even with some inequities of Partition. It is such distant vision, which must inspire this fateful third "try" but it can only succeed, if as Gandhiji said, the leadership in both countries keep the poorest in the forefront of their concerns.

Jagat Singh Mehta is a former Foreign Secretary.

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