Singh’s Statement: A Straw in the Wind?

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Two developments: One, the home minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Jammu where he said India wants better relations with Pakistan. He also recalled the former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s remarks in regard  to Pakistan that while friends can be changed, neighbours can’t be. Second, at a  brigade level flag  meeting at Chakkan-da-Bagh between Indian and Pakistan army, the two sides agreed to defuse the tensions along Line of Control and the International Border.  The meeting came after the recent four day Director General level bi-annual contact between India and Pakistan border guarding forces.

This is a welcome development and one could hope that it leads to re-establishment of the peace on the borders. In recent months, the frequent firing across the Line of Control and International Border in Jammu has wrought havoc along the border areas. Lives have been lost on both the sides.  The people have also been forced to migrate from their land and the houses. However, these violations are not new but have been going on for the past three years. This has frayed the 2003 ceasefire accord which had held for almost a decade. We have reached a point where the two countries do not put up even a pretence of being in some truce agreement.

It is in this context that Singh’s statement gives some feeble hope. Does it signal that some thawing in the relations is in order?  Not necessarily. Singh has indicated no significant change in India’s current approach to Islamabad. At best, it is a statement expressed for the sake of it, more in the manner of saying something to the media, a platitude. As for the recall of Vajpayee policy is concerned, BJP leaders including the prime minister Narendra Modi have invoked him time and again but in reality done the exact opposite.  The dialogue between the neighbours now appears farther than ever. Though the prime ministers of the two countries will be in New York this week in connection with 70th United Nations General Assembly session, there has been no official announcement about a possible bilateral meeting. The two leaders will be staying at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel which has raised the hopes of their running into each other. However, Modi will not be addressing the UN General Assembly. Instead, the foreign minister Sushma Swaraj will be doing so on India’s behalf. The PM will address the Sustainable Development Summit hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on September 25. Sharif will also address the high-level meeting on September 27. But by then Modi will have already moved to California where apart from meeting US President Barack Obama, he will attend the high-level Peacekeeping Summit at the United Nations headquarters. Since Sharif will also be attending the multilateral gathering, there are again chances that the leaders may come face-to-face.

But even if they meet, a chance contact between the two is unlikely to advance the cause of dialogue. And with no multilateral occasions scheduled in the near future where the two leaders could meet, the existing stalemate in the bilateral relationship is likely to linger. But if anything, Rajnath Singh’s statement in Jammu may be a straw in the wind, a not-so-veiled message that India and Pakistan might be working behind the scenes at a Modi-Sharif meeting in US.  And which, if it comes to pass will certainly make a redeeming difference and pave the way for the talks. The dialogue is the only way the neighbours can address their differences and move towards a resolution of their long-standing issues, with Kashmir being one of the most prominent among them. Only such an outcome is a guarantee of a sustainable peace in the region, not the recurrent lapse into hostility as has been the case for far too long now.

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