Can Pakistan and India ever become normal neighbours?

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The end of the year has witnessed some positive developments in Pakistan-India relations. Thelong-awaited meeting of the Director General Military Operations (DGMO) of the two countries was held on December 24, who agreed on a number of measures to stabilise the Line of Control (LoC) by making sure there is no firing on it. If there is some incident, it will be contained by using the existing mechanisms of telephonic contact between the DGMOs and a flag meeting of local commanders.

The bi-annual meeting between the Director Generals of Pakistan Rangers (Punjab) and India’s Border Security Force was held in Lahore on December 24-26, resulting in agreed measures for the management of India-Pakistan borders. This meeting was also viewed as a positive development. The commerce secretaries of India and Pakistan are expected to meet on the sidelines of the Saarc meeting in January 2014. They are expected to talk on measures to improve bilateral trade between India and Pakistan. India’s foreign minister, on December 26, underlined the need for pursuing dialogue with Pakistan. On the Pakistani side, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his adviser on foreign and security affairs, Sartaj Aziz, have repeatedly emphasised the need for improving relations with India.

The developments in Pakistan-India relations have given the hope that the interaction between the two countries will improve in 2014 by returning to dialogue on some issues even if the total dialogue is not revived.

The present series of dialogue was started after India’s then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Islamabad in January 2004 for the Saarc summit. He and the then Pakistani president, General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, agreed to start a dialogue on all contentious issues. The Congress-led government of Dr Manmohan Singh that assumed power in May 2004, also continued with the dialogue. Since then, whenever dialogue was suspended, it was done by India.

Both India and Pakistan have created highly nationalistic narratives of why their relations are troubled. Each side projects itself as pursuing the correct course of action and blames the other side for being responsible for conflict and tension in the region. On both sides, there are people and groups that have made careers out of preaching hatred against the other side. They have been socialised into a negative narrative about the other side and find it difficult to entertain the idea of normal relations between Pakistan and India.

There is no scope for improvement of relations if India and Pakistan stay prisoners of history and cannot look beyond the historical baggage. Both sides will have to do some out-of-the-box thinking if their relations are to be normalised. They will have to address their blind spots if they want to resolve their bilateral problems.

There is no solution of the Kashmir issue if both sides stick to their traditional positions: India arguing that Kashmir is its integral part and Pakistan demanding that the future of Kashmir should be decided in accordance with the UN resolutions of 1948-49. They will have to find a midway solution through negotiations. Some significant work was done by Pakistan and India on Kashmir between 2004 and 2007 for evolving an acceptable solution of the issue by incorporating existing political realities. This dialogue was based on Prime Minister Singh’s argument that borders cannot be changed and General (retd) Musharraf’s standpoint that the LoC cannot be turned into an international border. There is a need for reviewing this effort in order to see if something useful can be learnt from it.

Pakistan needs to examine the China-India model of relations, whereby the territorial claims and counter-claims have been frozen by both countries for pursuing need-oriented trade and economic relations.

Pakistan should give MFN status to India and take up the issue of reducing India’s non-tariff bureaucratic obstacles to supply of Pakistani goods to Indian markets. Pakistan can avail of India’s offer of supply of electricity because it is not difficult to connect the transmission lines between the two countries.

While Pakistan needs to change its approach, India also needs to take meaningful steps to improve bilateral relations. It cannot adopt an imperialistic disposition by asking Pakistan to do this or that without showing any meaningful flexibility. It has currently reduced its relations with Pakistan to a single-issue relationship, i.e., terrorism. Its leadership often argues that unless Pakistan satisfies India on terrorism-related issues, there cannot be progress in other sectors of relations.

Terrorism is one of the eight issues discussed in the dialogue in the past. It must stay on as one of those issues. However, India cannot hang the totality of relations on terrorism. Similarly, Pakistan cannot make the solution of the Kashmir problem as a pre-condition for progress in other areas of bilateral relations.

Of late, the role of the Indian Army appears to have increased in India-Pakistan relations. India’s Army Chief General Bikram Singh’s statements have been more hawkish towards Pakistan since January 2013 than those of India’s ministry of external affairs. It was the Indian Army’s opposition that blocked the withdrawal of troops from the Siachen Glacier, which had been agreed to in principle in 2006. It is very surprising that the Indian Army has developed such an overt profile on India’s relations with Pakistan. Hopefully, the new army chief will show restraint and facilitate improvement of relations between India and Pakistan.

Both Pakistan and India stand to gain if bilateral trade, economic and societal relations improve and they are able to resolve their problems in a graduated manner. This can be possible if they are innovative in their thinking and break out of the stranglehold of one-sided emotionally charged narrative of history. -The Express Tribune


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