South Asia: Breaking the impasse


Two recent developments should give rise to hopes, however faint, of a new beginning in Indo-Pak relations. One is a meeting between India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart Nasir Khan Janjua in Bangkok on Dec. 26. The meeting, confirmed by New Delhi on Thursday, took place a day after the mother and wife of retired Indian Navy officer Kulbhushan Jadhav, now on death row in Pakistan for spying, met him in Islamabad. Pakistan says Jadhav was captured in restive Balochistan in early 2016. India maintains that he was kidnapped from Iran where he had business interests after retiring from the navy. Whatever the truth, the Jadhav-family meeting has become the latest flashpoint in already strained Indo-Pak relations. India says Jadhav’s family was humiliated by Pakistani authorities. Pakistan says India is maligning it for its humanitarian gesture of allowing a convict’s family to travel to Pakistan to meet him.

The second was a call made by an Indian parliamentary panel on foreign affairs to both India and Pakistan to give a fresh impetus to bilateral ties with “concrete, comprehensive and long-lasting dialogue process.” The panel, reflecting the views of all parties in the Parliament, also urged the neighbors “to engage afresh and proceed with a step-wise process to dialogue, moving from peripheral to core issues.” More important, the panel suggested what amounts to unilateral steps on India’s part to move toward normalcy by taking appropriate measures. Whatever may be Pakistan’s attitude, India should initiate steps to end the stalemate.

According to an Indian spokesman, the Bangkok talks were centered on terrorism. It was part of operational level engagement that takes place between the two countries from time to time at various levels. He made it clear that such talks have nothing to do with the stalled dialogue process.

India has for some time been turning its face against resuming the peace process, maintaining that there is “an absence of trust”. But if India wants to restore trust, the only way to do it is to restart the stalled dialogue. If talks narrowly focused on cross-border terrorism can go ahead in the absence of trust, why not a comprehensive dialogue to discuss the whole gamut of Indo-Pak relations?

India may take some comfort from US President Donald Trump’s latest outburst against Pakistan, accusing it of providing “safe havens for the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.” New Delhi may even take it as some kind of endorsement for its case against Islamabad. But this should not persuade India to believe that the US would welcome a new get-tough approach to Pakistan. As long as its troops remain in Afghanistan, the US cannot afford to antagonize or alienate Pakistan.

Unlike the US, India is Pakistan’s next-door neighbor and has to find a way of living with it without open hostilities. All countries have problems or disputes with their neighbors. That India and Pakistan were part of one nation until 1947 makes the problems between them more complicated, with history, ideology and domestic politics casting their shadow over everything. But a warlike situation on the border is in neither country’s interest. So the impasse has to be broken. India, being the bigger and stronger power, should take the initiative.

We cannot expect all the problems to be solved in the foreseeable future. But both countries can take steps to ease tensions and create an atmosphere conductive to solving the more intractable problems, like terrorism and Kashmir.

What is needed is an imaginative diplomacy focusing on trade, people-to-people contacts, cultural exchanges, etc. As a first step, both countries should put an end to the hostile propaganda depicting the other side in lurid colors.

This is hurting both India and Pakistan in imperceptible ways.