INDIA has recently agreed to engage in talks with Pakistan on upgrading the 1974 joint protocol on religious pilgrimages to allow air travel as well as increase the number of shrines pilgrims from both countries. In response to a question the spokesperson for the ministry of external affairs Arindam Bagchi said that India also hoped to secure clearances to transport food aid to Afghanistan over the land route to Pakistan, which is otherwise closed.
Earlier, Pakistan government had sent a proposal from the Pakistan Hindu Council (PHC) to allow a group of 170 pilgrims to fly directly from Karachi and Lahore to places of worship in India. Bagchi said there was “an interest on both sides” to expand the agreed list of shrines and mode of travel adding that India “a positive approach” on this matter and was willing to engage the Pakistani side. The government, he said, also hoped that the restrictions due to ongoing COVID-19 wave could be utilised to hold discussions under the bilateral protocol to facilitate “early exchange of visits to all shrines of interest to pilgrims”.
This is a positive development and it is important that the talks on the mutual visits of pilgrims are held rightaway. This could get back the two countries some engagement and which if the situation remains favourable could be built upon to start a formal dialogue. Under the existing circumstances that remains a distant hope though. The governments of both the countries are in no mood to give up their rigid approach on the issues dividing them.
In India, the ongoing crucial state elections, especially the one in Uttar Pradesh, hardly give a hope that the two countries will be in a position to engage anytime soon. However, more than a dialogue to resolve their long festering issues including Kashmir, a reduction in the current bitterness in their relationship is important. Over the past seven years the ties between the two countries have teetered between indifference and confrontation which at times has threatened to tip over into hostilities. The two surgical strikes carried out by New Delhi and Pakistani response to the second is one such example of what an antagonistic relationship could result into. One hopes the exchange of pilgrims would create conditions for the fresh engagement between the two nations. Only a sustainable dialogue geared to address the long-standing issues will lead to a durable peace and prosperity in the region.
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