Reunion at Shanghai

A week ago there was hardly any expectation of the prime minister Narendra Modi meeting his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.  But now the two leaders not only met for more than an hour but also took some significant steps towards normalization of their ties. One of the biggest take-away is Modi’s acceptance of Sharif’s invitation to attend the SAARC summit in Pakistan in 2016. The National Security Advisers of the two countries will meet to “discuss all issues connected to terror”. Military-to-military contact will become part of the India-Pakistan dialogue process and the top army officers from India and Pakistan will meet in person. Importantly, Pakistan seems to have relented on the alleged Mumbai attack mastermind Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi. India and Pakistan, it was announced, “ have decided to find ways of expediting the 26/11 Mumbai terror trial”. India will now send additional evidence, including voice samples to Islamabad. Pakistan has contended that the evidence submitted so far by India including that against Lakhvi is insufficient.

The talks between the leaders were held after more than a year. What is more, the meeting was held on India’s request. The two had held a bilateral meeting on May 26 last year during the swearing-in of Modi. This was followed by exchange of gifts – the sari-shawl diplomacy – and the reconciliatory tweets by Modi, which had given rise to hope of improvement in ties between the two nuclear-armed rivals. The two countries were even embarked on a foreign secretary level engagement when the Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s meeting with Hurriyat leader Shabir Shah led to abrupt cancellation of the talks. 

Modi and Sharif had met in November last year during the SAARC Summit in Kathmandu, but they did not hold any bilateral meeting. In fact, the relations between the neighbours have increasingly soured over the past year. Their relations plunged to their lowest after India’s operation against the NSCN(K) terrorists in Myanmar. This was followed by the aggressive talk by some ministers and the jingoism in a section of media which elicited a similar response from Pakistan.  This had created a fraught regional situation prompting even United States to call upon India and Pakistan “to take steps to reduce tensions and to move towards resuming talks”.  

Now that the two countries are once again taking the steps to resume the engagement, there is a need to safeguard the process from its familiar dangers. The two leaders promising to restore peace process is no insurance against a number of the factors that are incidental to the India, Pakistan relations: an unfortunate terror incident in India, the violence in Kashmir and  along the LoC. 

Fortunately Kashmir, over the past year has witnessed by far its steepest decline in the violence and in recent months, the Kashmir frontiers too have been largely calm. This favourable turn in the situation couldn’t have been incidental to the efforts at re-engagement but appears to have been a result of the back-channel understanding between the countries. Hurriyat too has been a source of tension between the countries. India, it is learnt, has expressed its problem with the “sequencing” of the consultations with the Kashmiri separatist groups, which means that while Islamabad can meet them, it should not do so around the time of the bilateral dialogue. As has always been the case so far, all these circumstances make the talks between the two countries uncertain and prone to disruption. Now that the neighbours seem on the cusp of a new engagement, least we would hope is for the dialogue to sustain and hold. As the Congress leader Mani Shanker Aiyer says, the dialogue between India and Pakistan has to be “uninterrupted and un-interruptible”  for it to show some results.

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