India-Pakistan Relations: Guarded Optimism

A crowd gathers at the India-Pakistan border to watch the closing of the gates ceremony. (Photo: Webshots)

There are long-standing territorial and religious differences between South Asian neighbors India and Pakistan that have existed since 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned and the two countries became independent of Great Britain. Violent outbreaks occurred in 1947-48, 1965, and 1971 when the two nations went to war.

In July 1999, India and Pakistan came to the brink of another war over the disputed Kashmir region. Tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals rose sharply again after terrorist attacks at the Kashmir Assembly in Oct. 2001 and the Indian Parliament in Dec. 2001. India blamed Kashmiri militants based in Pakistan for the attacks. By Jan. 2002, nearly 1 million troops from both countries were massed along their 1,800-mile common border and many feared that any minor cross-border skirmish could spark a major conflict. International diplomatic intervention helped to diffuse the situation and since then, though the underlying tensions remain close to the surface, relations have definitely improved.

Today the two countries are guardedly optimistic on the prospect of resolving their differences.

As reported in India's The Hindu (April 2): "Sounding upbeat about the current pace of Indo-Pak peace process, Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan Shivshankar Menon has said the third round of the Composite Dialog talks may result in 'tangible' progress on some key issues. Menon also said that more than the pace of the talks, it was important that the dialog process should be sustainable in the long run."

More comments from Menon appeared in Qatar's The Penninsula (April 2): "The Pakistan-India talks are going in the right direction and have reached a point where they will gather momentum, Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad Shevshankar Menon has said. … 'We feel that the time has come when India and Pakistan, while working on our differing political and security perspectives, should focus attention on economic cooperation, building upon our strengths, complementaries and affinities,' said the Indian diplomat."

Bilateral Trade Encouraged

A measure of the rapprochement can be taken in the recent moves to encourage mutual trade. From (March 30): "India and Pakistan have agreed to strengthen their trade links as a means to normalizing relations between the two countries. At the conclusion of a three-day meeting in Islamabad entitled Economic and Commercial Cooperation, representatives of the two countries agreed to increased cooperation on banking, freight transport and key goods such as tea and rice, the BBC reported. This was the two nations' third round of trade talks since embarking on the peace process, and both countries agree that they have made progress in several areas."

Indeed, over the past year trade has been booming as reported in Pakistan's Daily Times (March 20): "Bilateral trade between Pakistan and India almost doubled to cross the one billion dollar mark this year, an industry body said. The 400 million dollar increase in the year ending March 2006 was attributed to the launch of a South Asian Free Trade Area Agreement (SAFTA) and the opening of rail and road links last year, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry said in a statement. 'The establishment of relations along with SAFTA has brought changes in customs tariffs and reduced trade-related barriers, leading to restoration of direct trade linkages and reducing the transaction costs,' said the statement quoted by the Press Trust of India news agency. Following the Jan. 2004 Indo-Pak peace talks, Pakistan scrapped import duties on 13 commodities from India, including garlic, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and livestock, that were scarce in its local markets. India last year imported onions from Pakistan to make up for a domestic shortfall. Bilateral trade, which stood at 161 million dollars almost five years ago, has the potential to reach 10 billion dollars by 2010, according to the industry body."

India's (March 30) reported that: "India and Pakistan have decided to take the initiative as part of their plans to boost bilateral trade and improve economic relations, and ease the process of getting business visas. This was stated in the Indo-Pak joint statement issued on the completion of the third round of two-day talks on economic and commercial cooperation within the framework of the Composite Dialog. The two sides also agreed to sign a new shipping agreement in the near future at New Delhi, and expedite talks to improve air services to between the two neighboring countries. Besides, they agreed to open bank branches in each other's countries and to get their central banks to facilitate applications. According to the statement, they agreed to facilitate importing of tea from India and encouraging delegations of importers and exporters of tea to visit to the other country. The two sides agreed to identify the problems of transportation of goods by train between India and Pakistan. The relevant ministries of both sides had a meeting on the sidelines of the talks and it was decided that they would continue their dialog."

In the same vein, The Hindu (March 30) reported: "The clarification by Pakistan Commerce Secretary Syed Asif Shah that the country would extend SAFTA to India means trade and economic relations between the countries are poised to grow in a new direction. With the operationalization of SAFTA from July 1, over 4,000 commodities will be open for trade compared to less than 1,000 under the India 'positive list' maintained by Pakistan. According to the statement, a new shipping agreement would be signed in the near future. Talks on an air services agreement would be concluded expeditiously. The existing deal was signed before the era of private airlines and both sides are in agreement to give an important role to private airlines."

One of the specific initiatives included in the agreements involved the opening of a bus route, as reported in the Vietnam News Agency (March 24): "India and Pakistan opened the Amritsar-Nankana bus service linking the two Punjabs of the two countries, regarding it as a confidence-building measure to promote the bilateral peace process. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he hoped that the transit link would mark the opening of a new chapter in relations between the two countries. Singh offered a 'Treaty of Peace, Security and Friendship' to Pakistan as a culmination of the ongoing peace process. Press Trust of India (PTI) quoted Singh as saying, 'I have a vision that the peacemaking process must ultimately culminate in our two countries entering into a 'Treaty of Peace, Security and Friendship' to give meaning and substance to our quest for shared goals. The time has come to leave behind the animosities and misgivings of the past and to think the unthinkable,' he said."

Reporting on the same event, Cuba's Prensa Latina news agency (March 24) noted that: "Both Singh and Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf began a peace process in Jan. 2004 to end all their conflicts, and although relations have progressed, no great advances have been made over Kashmir´s control. In that context, the Indian head of state dissociated the point of discord from the normalization process between the two nations."

Should the Peace Process Be Going Faster?

Amidst all the optimism, some feel that the peace process could be moving even more expeditiously. India's news portal, (March 31), reported: "Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has said the pace of improvement of relations with India was slow and it could move faster. 'The pace of improvement is not sufficient and it could move faster,' Musharraf told the state-run Daily News here when asked about ties between India and Pakistan." (March 10) elaborated on the Pakistani president's stance: "President General Pervez Musharraf said the composite dialog process between Pakistan and India should gear up now, and India should give a positive response to the proposals of self-governance and the demilitarization of Kashmir. 'We want friction-free relations with India and are keen to settle all the outstanding issues, including Kashmir, on the basis of mutual confidence. Lasting peace will remain elusive in the region unless the lingering Kashmir conundrum is resolved,' he said. Musharraf observed that he had presented 4-point strategy to resolve the Kashmir problem with good intent. 'There can be no clapping with one hand,' he said, adding, 'If India reciprocates our flexibility, we will go an extra mile. We don't want an arms race in the region.'"

Pakistani Foreign Office spokesperson Tasneem Aslam echoed her leader, calling for swifter action regarding the disputed region, as reported in The Hindu (March 30). "'The President and Prime Minister of Pakistan emphasize that the time has come for India and Pakistan to focus and meaningful discussions for a settlement of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute,' she said. 'The President has offered the ideas of self-governance, demilitarization and joint management which have found resonance among Kashmiris on both sides of the Line of Control.'"

Kashmiris Express Differing Views on the Peace Process

Within the disputed Kashmir region, there is a healthy amount of skepticism regarding the peace talks. As reported in Greater Kashmir (April 2): "Samajwadi Party, (SP) state president Sheikh Abdul Rehman said though the tension between India and Pakistan has considerably decreased, there is an apparent lack of sincerity and seriousness in the whole process. Rehman was addressing SP workers in a conference at Jammu. He said that heads of both the countries are trying to improve their relations, but nothing is being done to resolve the longstanding Kashmir dispute. 'The main reason behind the delay in the ongoing talks between the two countries is that both lack sincerity and seriousness,' he said."

Other Kashmiris had a more positive, though guarded, view of the proceedings. Greater Kashmir (April 3) reported: "Addressing a meeting of his party members in the Srinagar district, the Jammu Kashmir Democratic Liberation Party (DLP) chairman Hashim Qureshi said the roadmap put forth by the DLP in 1999 for resolving the Kashmir issue was appreciated by all, including European and Asian countries. 'Now India and Pakistan are also working on this formula to resolve the Kashmir issue,' said Qureshi. He urged all the regional political parties of state, from Gilgat to Lakhanpur, to bring unanimity in thought and action for the bright and brilliant future of their people, keeping in view their supreme sacrifices and aspirations. He decried the efforts by some elements bent upon dividing people along regional and religious lines. Qureshi also expressed regret that there was no change in the ground situation despite the substantial improvement in relations between India and Pakistan. He alleged that custodial killings, arrests and harassment were still continuing, as well as torture without justification. He appealed to the Indian and Pakistani governments to initiate steps to ensure an immediate halt to the ongoing 'oppression' in the state."

Indian Ministry of Defense: Peace Efforts on Course

In its Annual Report for 2005-06, the Indian Ministry of Defense noted that, "peace efforts with Pakistan are on course," as reported by (April 3). The article also noted: "As far as Pakistan is concerned, the process of attaining peace and stability, while being on course through the Composite Dialog initiative, there is concern that the 'peace and tranquility effort' has failed to significantly alter the situation on the ground in parts of Jammu and Kashmir. Though there has been some decrease in the number of cross-border infiltration attempts due to improved levels of vigilance by Indian security forces and completion of fencing along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and on the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL), infiltrations continue and the 'terrorist' infrastructure in Pakistan has not been dismantled."

There are other positive signs in the on-going peace process. The Daily Times (April 3) reported: "Pakistan's ambassador-designate to the United States, Mahmud Ali Durrani, has been called 'General Shanti' by a leading Indian newspaper for his work and interest in India-Pakistan peace. Bharat Bhushan, editor of The Telegraph's Delhi edition, writes in a report monitored here that 'India may finally have a friend as Pakistan's new ambassador to the US.' He describes Durrani as a 'staunch Pakistani nationalist' and 'an outspoken advocate of improving ties with India.' Considered close to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, who still respectfully addresses him as 'Sir,' Durrani was commissioned by Musharraf immediately after his coup to conduct a study for the army titled 'Pakistan's Security Imperatives for the year 2000 and beyond.' He is also the author of a book, India and Pakistan - The Cost of Conflict and the Benefits of Peace, published by Johns Hopkins University and Oxford University Press, Karachi."

The Entertainment Industry Follows Suit

The entertainment industry also reflects the conciliatory trend, with India's (March 31) reporting that, "The historical epic film 'Mughal-e-Azam' will finally hit Pakistan's cinemas June 2. The much-awaited release is seen as a catalyst in India-Pakistan relations. The official stamp came with the presence of Ziauddin Khattak, chairperson of the Central Board of Film Censors, who said: ' 'Mughal-e-Azam' is a reflection of our two nations' common heritage. The movie is a timeless classic and now that it has been digitally preserved, re-mastered and colored, is sure to be enjoyed by viewers ... and is a glorious tribute to the Muslim rule in the sub-continent.' Nadeem Mandviwalla, head of Mandviwalla Entertainment, the official distributors of the film in Pakistan, said: 'The showing of 'Mughal-e-Azam' in Pakistan is historically no less significant than the film itself. It is an opportunity for, and is the best catalyst, for the revival of cinema in Pakistan, at the same time cementing relationships between India and Pakistan.'"

The Times of India (April 3) reported that multifaceted Pakistani showman Umar Sharif is enthused about working with India's Bollywood film industry: "Besides authoring jokes, he usually has a lot on his mind. Lately he has been pondering quite a bit over fostering friendship between India and Pakistan. So, does he really see some hope of the two nations sharing cordial relations some day? 'The people of both countries want to be friends but the government has to simplify the process to enable better interaction,' he said. Sharif who has spent 25 years in Pakistan's entertainment industry is excited about his Bollywood project, said, 'I want to do more Bollywood films and am really looking forward to working with Indian actors. My favourite actor is Amitabh Bachchan and from the present generation, I think Aamir is the best.'