Asia-Pacific

India-Pakistan Rapprochement: A Cautious Optimism?

The Changing of the Guard at the India-Pakistan border. (Photo: Webshots)

On Sept. 24, 2004 the new Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York; it was the first meeting of the two leaders. The South Asian media were keen to observe even the tiniest signals. Will the two leaders interact well? Will they establish a good rapport? Would the elusive peace negotiations, initiated in Jan. 2004 by Atal Behari Vajpayee, the former Indian Prime Minister, continue with the new Congress party government? In spite of past failures to resolve Indo-Pakistan conflicts, this time a little more hope was pinned on this first meeting. Indeed, there was some poignancy in the encounter; each leader was born in the other's country. Manmohan Singh was born in Gah, a village in western Punjab, now in Pakistan, and Pervez Musharraf was born in New Delhi, India. The significance of their meeting cannot be underestimated, but was it a turning point?

There is, of course, a pervasive cynicism in South Asia concerning Indo-Pakistan relations, which sees all peace negotiations as doomed enterprises. But we need to examine the context of present negotiations carefully to assess the chance for better outcomes. What factors produced the current rapprochement? Have changes in the international environment (especially the 9/11 attacks) played a transformative role? The mainstream media around the world recently have praised Indian and Pakistani leaders for engaging in dialog and welcomed interventions of U.S. diplomacy to avert escalation of a potentially nuclear conflict.

Should the credit for the peace process be limited to the initiatives of the leaders and these external mediators? I argue here that a great deal of credit should also be given to civil society dialogs. The peace process is sustained by creative energies of citizens, transnational groups, and non-governmental organizations which have helped change public attitudes of Indians towards Pakistan (and vice versa, although I am limiting my analysis to India). These unofficial groups play an indispensable role in promoting initiatives, reducing tensions, and coming up with useful alternatives to calm dangerous situations. Along with a changing public consciousness, we need to understand the reasons and imperatives that influenced leaders to begin bona fide negotiations. Have changes in public opinion decisively affected the calculations leaders make?

I briefly examine the character of Indo-Pakistan relations, focusing on the last six years of BJP rule in India when the ties between the two nations displayed a seesaw pattern: periods of abrupt hostility followed by returns to a more or less amicable footing. Then I examine how civic organizations and transnational networks fostered a favorable climate for negotiations. Finally, I discuss pressures on leaders which steered them to dialog; I also take into account the influence of U.S. and other international actors. I conclude that when we weigh the changed environment, domestically and internationally, and the role of the peace constituency, we can be cautiously optimistic about a negotiated settlement of the ongoing conflict.

Historical Legacies

It is all too easy to assume that the relations between India and Pakistan are implacably hostile. Not only was partition in 1947 marked by searing violence, the two nations fought three full scale wars over their first five decades. However, while public discourse remained fractious, in fact, the two nations edged toward muted cooperation. Indeed, right from the start, the two new states, with inadequate bureaucracies and police forces, and woefully insufficient infrastructures had to cooperate to cope with 12 million displaced people.

In the ensuing years, the two neighbors have signed a number of important agreements. In 1948 they agreed to share water flowing between the two sides of Punjab and in 1960 to share Indus river basin water. They negotiated settlements of border disputes along the western Indian desert. In 1973-76, after the Bangladesh war, the negotiations between the three governments led to Pakistan's recognition of Bangladesh, and an exchange of Pakistani prisoners. In 1988 they pledged not to attack each other's nuclear facilities, not to violate each other's air space, and to notify the other in advance of military exercises. The Declaration on Chemical Weapons in 1992 agreed to forswear use of chemical weapons. In 1996 Pakistani and Indian military officers met at the Line of Control to wind down border tensions and in 1996-1997 diplomatic talks tamped down tensions in Jammu and Kashmir. In 1997 Pakistan proposed to discuss terms for a non-aggression treaty and for restraints on nuclear and missile capabilities.

However, the electoral victory of the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in India in March 1998 ended the discussions. But, contrary to most expectations, during six years of BJP rule (1998-2004), relations between India and Pakistan did not turn out to be hopelessly hostile.

Oscillating Relationship - 1998-2004

In 1998 India under the BJP shocked South Asia by conducting nuclear tests. Pakistan retaliated with its own tests. The international community, alarmed, pressured the two nations to negotiate. In Feb. 1999 Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif undertook an initiative to normalize relations. This led to a visit by the Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to Lahore via bus, across the Wagah border. The leaders issued a joint communiqué, known as the "Lahore Declaration," and the two nations seemed to set on an amicable path. However, a few months later, insurgents in the Kargil hills in Indian Kashmir, ignited a three-month clash. President Clinton pressured the Pakistani leader to force rebels to withdraw. Kargil was a dismal low point. A few months later, in October 1999, a coup in Pakistan overthrew the elected government of Nawaz Sharif, and General Pervez Musharraf seized power.

A bloody insurgency has been going on in Kashmir since 1989. India blames Pakistan for harboring violent insurgents who infiltrate the border. Pakistan claims that it only offers moral support. This 'low intensity conflict' has taken nearly 65,000 civilian lives, the disappearance of 6,000 - 8,000 young men, and the displacement of 300,000 Kashmiri Pandits [Hindus]. In 2000 a ray of hope appeared: the main insurgent group declared a ceasefire and India reciprocated. In July 2001 President Pervez Musharraf went to Agra for a summit with Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee. Despite much fanfare, the two sides could not arrive at a conclusive compromise.

Soon after the 9/11 attacks, the Indo-Pakistan relationship slid into a downward spiral when Kashmiri separatists attacked the state legislature in Srinagar, Kashmir which left 38 dead. That was followed by another bold attack on Dec. 13 when militants associated with Lashkar e-Taiba assaulted the Indian parliament and killed fourteen. India held Pakistan responsible. Although President Musharraf denounced the attack, India deployed 700,000 Indian troops along the border. In response, Pakistan mobilized its 300,000 troops. The harsh rhetoric and threat of use of nuclear weapons again frightened the international community. The U.S. induced both sides to de-escalate. India agreed to remove troops from forward positions, and Pakistan agreed to ensure that insurgent camps on its side of the border would be removed.

With strong mediation the two sides made another try to mend relations in 2003. The upswing began with a visit of Pakistani Parliament members to New Delhi in May, followed by the visit of Indian Parliament members to Islamabad in July. A few months later, a ceasefire was reestablished in Kashmir. In January 2004, Atal Behari Vajpayee met President Musharraf while attending the meeting of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation in Islamabad, Pakistan. There began a new round of negotiations, called the Composite Dialog. There was some anxiety about the peace process when elections in spring 2004 brought the victory of the Congress-led coalition government under the new Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. However, the new administration quickly reaffirmed its support for the continuation of the Composite Dialog. Let us now examine the factors influencing this rapprochement..

Will Negotiations Work?

There are good reasons to be skeptical about peace prospects. President Musharraf has survived several assassination attempts and continues to be excoriated by civilian political leaders, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, both in exile. Musharraf also faces wrath of the Islamist parties for support of the U.S.-led War on Terror. As the search for Al Qaeda proceeded, many Pashtuns (sympathetic to Taliban) faced harassment in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Rising alienation of the local population probably resulted in the recent termination of searches by the Pakistani military. The strife in Jammu and Kashmir simmers; every day one hears of 'terrorist incidents,' more killings and growing rage at Indian security operations. Skepticism about negotiations is squarely based on the Kashmir problem; India favors the status quo and Pakistan wants change, not leaving much ground for compromise.

The lack of trust is based on each side's perceptions of its own vulnerability and the other's lack of good faith. Actions aimed ostensibly at reducing tensions, such as India's fence inside its border to prevent incursions in Kashmir are seen by Pakistan as a violation of earlier agreements. There is impatience in Pakistan about the pace of progress in negotiations; the Indian side appears to be dragging its feet. The two countries have not established congruent doctrines on nuclear weapons use, leaving many security experts very uneasy.

Yet there are considerable reasons for optimism. First, a composite dialog process continues. In September, the Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan met to review the progress of the Dialog and agreed that the negotiations on eight subjects have been productive and recommended continuation. Indian and Pakistani commanders are discussing pulling troops back from the perilous 21,000 foot Siachen glacier. While the negotiators have not come to a grand agreement on Kashmir, they are building on areas of convergence to improve daily life for Kashmiri people, such as allowing families ease of access and cross-border visits. Accomplishments also include reaffirming nuclear Confidence Building Measures, agreeing to cooperate to check drug trafficking, and consult on poverty alleviation programs, release fishermen who had crossed poorly marked boundaries, ease visits of each other's nationals through a special tourist visa, and establish bus services between the two divided parts of Kashmir, Punjab, and Ladakh. There are plans to open consulates in Karachi and Bombay to facilitate and expedite visa procedures.

Trade growth is promising. India enjoys a surplus with Pakistan and would like Most Favored-Nation (MFN) status for its exports of chemicals, plastics, petroleum products, pharmaceuticals, rubber, iron ore and tea. India imports fabrics, spices, sugar, vegetables, fruits and nuts. Two-way trade increased from $157 million in 1997-98 to $343 million by March 2004. Another relevant figure is the $ 2 - $8 billion of prohibited goods such as medicines, liquor, auto spares, cosmetics, DVDs, videotapes, chemicals and viscose fiber, which is conducted via indirect routes through Dubai or Singapore, or by smuggling. Of mutual interest is a natural gas pipeline from Iran through Pakistan to India. The discussions for this four billion dollar project were initiated eight years ago but tensions blocked its progress. Pakistan would earn $600 million in transit fees, while India could save $2 billion dollars a year by importing natural gas from Iran. Although the two sides did not settle the issue of the construction of Wullar Barrage in Kashmir, the two sides re-affirmed the Indus Water Treaty. They also reached an accord to jointly survey the boundary pillars at Sir Creek, a small coastal seven mile strip along the Gujarat coast. The governments agreed to establish a vital nuclear hot line to avert risk of accidental launch, and to upgrade an existing hotline between India and Pakistan's senior military officers.

Yet what is especially heartening in the peace process are the informal exchanges. For instance, in Punjab, the Eleventh World Punjab Conference in Patiala invited Chaudhary Pervez Elahi, chief minister of Pakistan's Punjab province, as chief guest. [He was reciprocating an earlier visit of (Indian) Punjab's chief minister to Lahore] This conference was preceded by first ever Punjab Games where teams from both countries competed. Along with games, the Punjabi leaders advocated rapid normalization of Indo-Pak relations, more trade, tourism and cultural interaction and a bus service between the two capitals of Punjab.

Regarding Kashmir, India moved away from its hard stance that it would not negotiate until border incursions stopped. India also withdrew some troops. Pakistan, for its part, relaxed its demand that a plebiscite resolve the dispute. Neither country any longer claims the whole of Jammu and Kashmir. Citizens in each country are beginning to see that a compromise is needed. So far India has held two rounds of discussions with moderate separatist leaders in Kashmir and allowed the Pakistani Prime Minister to meet with Kashmiri separatists in India. Some separatist leaders (All Party Hurriyat Conference) are optimistic about being allowed to visit Pakistan, a condition they set for their third round of talks with India. In mid December, Kashmiri leaders from both sides met at a conference in Kathmandu organized by Pugwash International , a non-profit think tank which encourages peaceful resolutions of conflicts. The meeting was also attended by retired diplomats, bureaucrats, army officers, politicians, journalists and other concerned individuals. Indeed, the most important contributing factor in the Indo-Pakistan rapprochement may be this active peace constituency in both countries fostering people to people dialogue to mold the public opinion in favor of negotiated solution.

Peace Constituency

Since the 1970s civil society engagement emerged as the educated middle classes became frustrated with the inability of their governments to provide social services and viable solutions. A variety of South Asian non-governmental organizations and networks got involved. Conflict management studies distinguish three levels of peace making interactions; Track I is diplomatic efforts to resolve conflicts through official channels; Track II is policy-related discussions that are non-governmental and whose goals are new policy initiatives and informal channels overcoming closure of official communication. Track III activities connote people to people interactions which bypass official contacts with the goal of building constituencies to change public opinion and pressure governments to resolve differences peacefully. I identify below the main organizations and the kind of activities they have sponsored, although this is not an exhaustive list.

India-Pakistan Friendship Society is one the earliest Track II organizations. Started in 1987 it organized visits of Pakistani cultural groups to India, annual lectures, and held discussions with the diplomatic staff at the Pakistan High Commission. It was chaired by I. K. Gujral, who became the Prime Minister briefly in 1997. Others are India-Pakistan Neemrana Initiative and the India-Pakistan Soldiers Initiative for Peace. The former, established in 1991, provides a forum for annual discussions for retired diplomats, academics and military personnel. The latter, formed in 1999 in Karachi by retired military personnel from India and Pakistan, offered chances to meet political leaders from the government and opposition. There also are business efforts to arrange mutual visits of chambers of commerce and to promote bilateral trade. Then there are reunions of elite educational institutions such as the RIMCO Old Boy's Network, Doon School Old Boy's Society, and Kinnaird College for Women from Lahore, Pakistan, whose alums occupy influential positions.

Among the Track III are the Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy, who have organized annual conferences since 1994. Their meetings deal with conflict in Kashmir, demilitarization, persecution of minorities, etc. There is also the Pakistan-India People's Solidarity Conference which holds conferences on nuclear issues, democracy, the Kashmir problem. Another is the Women's Initiative for Peace in South Asia which exchanges delegations between the countries. The People's Asia Forum (established in 1996) brings eleven Indians and eleven Pakistanis in a face-to-face discussion to explore issues, and its recommendations are offered to the government. Such initiatives multiplied as more groups such as the Association of the Peoples of South Asia, the South Asian Human Rights Association and the South Asia Free Media Association sponsored organized dialogues.

A more glittering feature of Track III are visits of sports teams: cricket, hockey, polo, etc. And there is the steady stream of visiting movie stars, musicians, journalists, high school students, college students, and peace activists. The opening up of these societies has offered a richer view, from Indian movies at film festivals to an India book fair in Pakistan. Indeed, one mundane sign of changing attitudes is a popular new Hindi movie, Veer - Zaara. It portrays a love story between an Indian (Hindu) rescue pilot and a Pakistani (Muslim) young woman. The Indian pilot is played by a Muslim actor and a Hindu actress plays the Muslim woman. The new popular theme focuses on the trauma of families divided between the two countries. This is a dramatic change because only three years ago, several Hindi films exploited the hyper-nationalistic theme of an Indian hero fighting Pakistanis. Now when a film ("Lakshya" - which means target) focuses on the Kargil conflict of 1999, it does not demonize the foe. A film with a rabid hyper-patriotic message (such as the film, "Hero") falters at the box office. Indian films, though banned in Pakistan since 1965, are widely seen because of availability of videotapes and pirated copies. Indian movie stars are treated as celebrities when they visit Pakistan. Both countries have excellent singers and several artists cooperated to produce joint albums, and are sought to sing in the films and TV serials in each other's nation. The movie industry takes a lead in movies promoting better understanding; it will not be long before directors will hire not only actors but technical staff from both countries. The best symbol of citizen initiative is the spirit of bonhomie generated each year when peace activists gather at the Wagah border to light candles to express friendship on Pakistan and India's independence days, August 14 and 15.

Having highlighted the contribution and supportive role of the peace constituency in the negotiation process, I turn to factors that have brought the two countries to the negotiating table.

Factors Enhancing Dialog

During 1998-2004 Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee firmly associated himself with the peace process despite opposition within his own party. Commentators suggest that Vajpayee sought a major agreement to establish a glowing legacy. One cannot ignore electoral calculations either. Recognizing that peace attracted great public support, BJP leaders calculated that Vajpayee's rapprochement with Pakistan would translate into more votes in the parliamentary elections in 2004. Vajpayee's peace overtures need to be seen against the background of other developments as well. Militarily, India won the 1999 Kargil War and achieved a diplomatic victory by gaining American support for its preferred Line of Control (LOC). President Clinton, fearing escalation, pressured Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to remove infiltrators from Kargil and to foreswear future transgression.

Yet India's military success did not translate into border security. India couldn't eliminate the Kashmir insurgency, which it blamed on militants based in Pakistan. After attacks on the Kashmir legislature and Indian Parliament in 2001 the Indian government shelled Pakistan's positions in October and amassed its troops. This expensive mobilization in 2002 was eventually called off. The Indian army simply cannot destroy terrorist bases on Pakistan's side without huge casualties and inviting international condemnation and intervention. Indian Ministry of Home Affairs reports that India spent $1.1 billion on cross-border insurgency over 1989-2002, plus $4 million a month on economic development in Kashmir. India's central government also provides $93 million assistance to the state government in Kashmir, which does not include cost for care of 40,000 displaced persons from Kashmir valley or compensation for 20,000 dead. How long can this burden be carried?

In addition to economic costs, the Indian leaders acknowledge that military operations rouse anger because security forces commit severe human rights violations. The search for a political solution to the growing alienation necessitated the Indian government's push for new state legislative elections in Jammu and Kashmir in October 2002. The new state government gained office by promising to increase economic opportunities, improve security, and investigate rights violations. Cross border infiltrations declined from 164 in 2002 and 138 in 2003 to 30 in the first half of 2004. Is this a result of US/EU pressure on Pakistan to cut support to jehadi militants? Or, is it because India has nearly completed fencing the border along the LOC ? This fence is a multi tier security set up, including sensors, thermal imagers and night vision devices, and is electrified in sections of the border where there is high degree of infiltration.

Another factor influencing Vajpayee's decision is India's ambition to be recognized as a regional leader and gain a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. India cannot do so if it cannot ensure stability in its region and demonstrate good relations with neighbors. India also wants to achieve 8 -10 percent annual growth but for that it needs to attract more foreign investment, which is dependent on domestic stability and peaceful relations. Last but hardly least, there is an urgency to avoid nuclear war, and reap the anticipated benefits from trade with Pakistan. India surely prefers to deal with President Musharraf (who has shown willingness to compromise) than with an extremist Islamist party. In summing up, the current Indian leaders resumed negotiations because they hope to establish a stable relationship, regain peace in Kashmir, and seek a permanent seat in the UN's Security Council. They also hoped to make significant economic gains from future trade and investments in Pakistan. Also their calculations were based on limits of India's military capabilities, a nuclear weapons stalemate, and an increasingly urgent resolution of Kashmir problem.

What factors have influenced Pakistan? One is recognition of the growing disenchantment of Pakistani middle class citizens over Kashmir policy. The media and intelligentsia have raised questions about the high cost to Pakistan for its support of Kashmir's secessionist struggle. This policy resulted not only in diplomatic isolation but a decline in trade and tourism and a serious lag in technology development. Such a policy also fostered confrontation with India and the development of nuclear weapons as a consequence of 'militarization.' Further, the support of Islamic militias damaged Pakistan's image abroad while, domestically, these religious groups began a gradual 'Talibanization' of civil society, causing discord and sectarian divisions. Critics contrast Pakistan's deteriorating economy to India's meteoric rise based on new foreign investments, development of its Information Technology sector and its acquisition of an immense share of America's outsourcing business.

Dissatisfaction with Pakistani military adventurism is matched by citizen discontent with the military's influence in politics. The 9/11 attacks forced U.S. policymakers to refocus interest on South Asia, which had flagged after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pakistan had ceased to be a strategic ally and in 1998 the US Congress imposed sanctions after the nuclear tests. However, 9/11 brought U.S. back as it unleashed its war on terror in Afghanistan. Pakistan not only recognized the Taliban government but was its key sponsor. As the U.S. leaned on Pakistan to help it in Afghanistan, Musharraf complied but continued to support 'Jihad' in Kashmir. Yet Musharraf's shift led to a confrontation with Islamic militants. In 2003 there were two assassination attempts on Musharraf. Recognizing Pakistan's vulnerabilities, U.S. offered a $3 billion aid package with three conditions: Pakistan's cooperation in the U.S.-led War on Terror, improvement of relations with India, and greater democratization at home.

The Pakistani establishment realizes that "its 14 year-old policy of trying to bleed India through Kashmir failed. India has not only absorbed the damage, but won a good deal of sympathy from the international community, especially the U.S." There is growing recognition, among the public and elites in Pakistan, that recent surveys have shown discontented (Indian) Kashmiris prefer independence more than joining Pakistan, and that reality needs to be acknowledged.

Public disenchantment in Pakistan grew over a Kashmir policy which drained large defense expenditure at the cost of development needs. There also is a public realization that support of jihadis was harming Pakistan by propagation of an intolerant, divisive and gender biased version of Islam, which negated Pakistan's self image as a successful, secular, progressive, tolerant multiethnic state.

The U.S., for various reasons, interceded to induce the rivals to work out solutions. In 2002, Britain and U.S. considered sending 500 peacekeepers to monitor the LOC. Western Europe and the U.S. have a definite interest in preventing escalation and promoting development. As South Asian countries prosper there will be more demand for western goods. U.S. business ties with India have recently expanded and there is a virtual global frenzy for access to India's cheap skilled labor. Some observers also note that U.S. has likely designated India as a "crucial economic and military counterweight to China" and has increased military ties with India and conducted joint naval and military exercises.

Over 2002-2004 the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State visited India four times, Secretary Colin Powell three times and an Assistant Secretary of State as many as ten times. The U.S. assured India that the training camps in Pakistan controlled Kashmir are being removed and that President Musharraf is sincere about stopping infiltration. U.S. involvement, of course, stirs a variety of reactions. The Left worries about access of U.S. and other multinationals and loss of India's remaining socialist policies. Ardent nationalists worry about the loss of sovereignty and that U.S. might impose its own blueprint on Kashmir. Still others welcome U.S. mediation because the two parties cannot solve problems on their own. Finally, some foresee rapprochement as the two nations are motivated to resolve conflicts if only to limit less benign US meddling in South Asia.

Conclusion

Any appraisal of Indo-Pakistan relations is afflicted with anxiety as to whether the leaders negotiate in good faith. Both sides need to highlight their accomplishments and also reiterate support for continued dialogue.

There is a clear awareness how each side could vitiate the dialog process. From Indian perspective, if violent attacks by rebels were to increase in Jammu and Kashmir (with support from Pakistan) or if Pakistan were to pressure India to a rigid time frame and push for agreement on Kashmir problem, it would work to unravel earlier achievements. It would build more trust, if Pakistan acted to prevent cross border terrorism and to promote economic relations and people to people contact while negotiating on the Kashmir conflict.

Similarly from Pakistan's perspective, trust in dialogue process with India would be lost if it is not leading to any visible progress on Kashmir problem, or if India insists on converting the LOC into an international border as the final solution, or if India prioritizes trade over other issues. India could gain more trust from Pakistan, if it were to improve human rights situation in Kashmir and reduce its troops from the region. India could also express more appreciation of Pakistan's observation of the ceasefire along the border, which has allowed India to build the fence.

In conclusion, a cautious optimism about the final outcomes is based on the fact that even when the talks seem to reach a stalemate as recently, the officials in both countries promptly reaffirm their commitment to negotiations, in recognition of the growing strength of their respective peace constituencies. In Jan. 2004, in Islamabad, Vajpayee acknowledged the "peace camp in India is much larger than that favoring perpetuating of enmity with Pakistan" while Pakistan's Information Minister, visiting India, remarked "hostility with India no longer sells in the Pakistani election market."

In India and Pakistan the domestic environments have altered for the better. The peace constituency exerts genuine influence on the dialogue; it represents the wishes of average citizens who are eager to improve relations with their neighbor. At the same time, a benign byproduct of the War on Terrorism has been discreet but sustained U.S. mediation to encourage India and Pakistan to resolve their outstanding conflicts through negotiations. Given these positive changes in internal and external environment, I remain cautiously optimistic about the eventual resolution of the longstanding conflicts between India and Pakistan.

This article first appeared in Logos (www.logosjournal.com) - Winter 2005 issue, Volume 4 number 1.

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