The long path ahead

South Asia watchers have much to cheer about this New Year. Bitter rivals India and Pakistan have decided to commence peace talks in February. The process – initiated in April 2003, when the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee extended India’s “hand of friendship” to Pakistan – culminated in a meeting this month between the Indian Prime Minster and Pakistani President (and Gen.) Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad on the sidelines of a South Asian regional summit. A joint statement issued by both countries calls for a “composite dialog” on the disputed region of Kashmir. It is hard not to get caught up in the euphoria generated by this thaw in India-Pakistan relations. However, history teaches us that a dose of cautious optimism is in order here.

Much has changed since the last time peace was given a go. First, we live in a post-9/11 world. Thanks to international pressure – particularly, American pressure – Pakistan has realized that supporting terrorism in Kashmir is no longer an acceptable tool of foreign policy. Musharraf’s declaration to not allow Pakistan to be used as base for terrorist groups operating in Kashmir is a reflection of this realization.

Second, unlike in the past, both India and Pakistan currently have governments able to go the extra mile to make a compromise without being accused of selling out. India is currently ruled by a right-wing Hindu Nationalist party that has traditionally been the watchdog on issues of national security. Pakistan’s military is considered the only institution that holds the country together, and the military government has often justified its rule based on the needs of Pakistan’s security.

Finally, there is a genuine recognition by both countries that there can be no military solution to Kashmir. Both India and Pakistan are declared nuclear powers. Any future conflict between the two will have a nuclear dimension to it, and the attending loss of human life and property. Pakistan realizes that India’s growing economic might and increasingly warm ties with the United States is constantly decreasing Pakistan’s window of opportunity to secure favorable terms in a final settlement. For India, the Kashmir dispute has dissipated its national resolve and diverted the focus from its No. 1 priority, the economy, the development of which will allow India to assume its rightful place on the world stage.

All of these factors and others augur well for the current attempt at peace. However, numerous pitfalls can potentially derail these gingerly steps. It remains to be seen whether President Musharraf can muster the political will to carry out his promise to curb the numerous terrorist groups operating in Pakistan. The powerful Islamic parties in Pakistan that have invested a lot of blood and sweat in sustaining the militancy in Kashmir are bound to oppose any limits on their activities or on those of the militant groups they support. Last December, Musharraf narrowly escaped two assassination attempts by these very terrorist groups. The precision with which these attempts were carried out is a worrisome indication that the groups may have managed to penetrate the general’s innermost security circle.

India’s upcoming national elections could impact the peace process. Election rhetoric or a change in leadership might scuttle the nascent initiative. The overwhelming public support for peace in both countries might be diluted once the process advances and the nature of the compromises needed to reach a settlement becomes apparent. Furthermore, the peace process thus far has been a political initiative. It remains to be seen if the hard-nosed Indian and Pakistani bureaucracies will buy into the vision of their political leaders and carry forward this process to a final settlement.

Past attempts at peace have derailed just when agreements were in sight. Unwarranted optimism and high expectations preceded such peace summits. They invariably led to disappointments and periods of dangerous downturns in relations. Two cases illustrate this fact. Fighting in the Kargil heights in Kashmir in the first-ever hot war between nuclear powers followed the 1999 Lahore peace declaration. The failed Agra peace summit of 2001 was followed by an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the two militaries along their common border that lasted several months. In each of these instances, powerful interests that feared a sellout of their respective country’s position on Kashmir nixed the peace deals. “There can be many a slip between the cup and the lip.” No aphorism is truer in the South Asian context. India and Pakistan must make new history to succeed.

-The writer is a graduate student studying South Asia.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.