For more than fifty years India and Pakistan have had a very strained relationship. There were two full-scale wars in 1965 and 1971, and limited wars in Kashmir in 1948 and the Rann of Kutch in April 1965. There were serious war scares in 1950, 1951, 1987, 1999 and 2002. Even when there were no warlike situations, tension between the two neighbours continued at varying levels.
No doubt serious efforts were also made from time to time to resolve their differences, involving high-level bilateral contacts, as also mediatory efforts by outside powers. However, following its victory in the 1971 War, India has opposed any third-party role, though evidence of US involvement in defusing tensions was there during the Kargil crisis of 1999 and the more recent war scare in 2002.
The Simla Agreement of 1972 was a serious attempt to secure peace between the two countries but it had lost much significance by the 1980s as the Kashmir dispute resurfaced with great intensity. The Bus Diplomacy and Lahore Declaration of 1999 raised hopes but it turned out to be a short-lived affair due to the Kargil incident. In July 2001, the two countries again held serious negotiations during the Agra Summit but conflicting perceptions about the Kashmir issue became the stumbling block. The peace prospects were soon derailed by the attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 for which India put the responsibility on Pakistan. It even seemed that war was imminent which could have become a nuclear conflagration. This was barely averted, primarily due to international pressure. Nonetheless, it was probably the most dangerous confrontation between the two countries with prospects of horrific destruction. This very realisation might have at long last jolted the two adversaries to return to the negotiating table.
The peace process initiated in April 2003 gained momentum in January 2004. The Joint Statement issued at Islamabad, during the SAARC Summit, by President Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee contained two main points. Firstly, India and Pakistan agreed to resume their “composite” dialogue in February 2004. The two leaders were confident that this would lead to a peaceful settlement of all bilateral issues, including Jammu and Kashmir, to the satisfaction of both sides. Secondly, the President of Pakistan reassured the Indian prime minister that he would not permit any territory under Pakistan’s control to be used to support terrorism in any manner. The two leaders also agreed that constructive dialogue would promote progress towards the common objective of peace, security and economic development for their peoples and for future generations.(1)
Since then, some progress has been seen in the bilateral discussions on the less contentious issues. The agenda for the talks and time schedule has been worked out. Moreover, there has been a notable increase in the exchange of visits at various levels. In particular, the Indian cricket team’s tour of Pakistan in March-April 2004 significantly enhanced people-to-people contacts between the two countries, with thousands of Indians coming to Pakistan and getting an exceptionally warm welcome. It seems that pressure of public opinion is growing in both countries in favour of peace and normalisation. This could have influenced the ruling BJP government in India to call general elections six months ahead of schedule in order to use the “peace with Pakistan” card to woo the Indian voters. The opposition Congress also favoured the peace process with Pakistan.
In Pakistan too, the traditional “hate India” lobbies have been somewhat muted. Notably, it seems that the Pakistani religious parties have become so obsessed with their growing “hate America” agenda that they are willing to dilute their traditional hardline stance against India.
Alongside, international pressure continues on both India and Pakistan to defuse their tensions and resolve their differences. All of these factors are contributing towards strengthening the peace process.
According to the agreed framework for talks, high-level negotiations between the two sides are expected to start in June 2004. The composite dialogue would cover all subjects including Kashmir. However, the unexpected defeat of the BJP government in the general elections in May 2004 and the return to power of the Congress party has given a new twist to the situation. Since then, the Congress spokesmen have stressed that, despite the change of government, the dialogue with Pakistan will continue. In fact, the Congress has claimed credit for initiating the peace process a decade ago.
Soon after winning the election, Congress President Sonia Gandhi said that she would “most certainly” continue Vajpayee’s peace process with Pakistan. “From the very beginning, we supported Mr. Vajpayee’s initiative with Pakistan. In fact, we have always been saying that a dialogue must be initiated with Pakistan. But the government of the day did not want to heed our counsel.”(2)
Prime Minister-designate Dr. Manmohan Singh, in his first meeting with the press, said that improving ties with Pakistan was the topmost foreign policy objective of the Congress-led government. “We seek the most friendly relations with our neighbours, more so with Pakistan than with any other country. We must find ways and means to resolve all the outstanding problems that have been a source of friction and the unfortunate history of our relations with Pakistan. It is our sincere hope that that should become a thing of the past. We should look to the future with hope. It is not impossible.” Dr. Singh added that just as the fall of the Berlin Wall was unthinkable some years ago, normal ties between India and Pakistan were wrongly considered unmanageable. “It will be our effort without sacrificing our national security imperatives to create an environment to move forward and improve our relations with Pakistan on a priority basis.” He also said: “As far as the Jammu and Kashmir policy is concerned, our party is in favour of discussion with all the interested groups. We will explore all possible opportunities to bring peace and prosperity to this vital state of the nation.”(3)
Incidentally, the two children of Congress President Mrs. Sonia Gandhi — Rahul and Priyanka — visited Karachi in April 2004 to watch the India-Pakistan cricket match. Both were received warmly and evidently went back with a favourable perception about the need to improve Indo-Pakistan relations. Both campaigned actively during the election campaign and clearly contributed to the success of the Congress. Rahul won his seat by a large margin and is likely to figure prominently in the Congress in the days ahead.
On the eve of resumption of high-level Indo-Pakistan talks, it seems useful to take stock of the situation and analyse what are the prospects of peace, prosperity and stability in South Asia. While all issues between India and Pakistan are important and each, in turn, can become a stumbling block, it seems possible that the two countries can find common ground on perhaps all of them, with one exception, viz. the Kashmir dispute. This remains the most divisive issue and the whole peace process can get bogged down if the two sides hold firm to their stated public positions on Kashmir.