Whose peace talks are these, Anyway?

Peace is in the air again, though somewhat elusive. The Prime Minister gave us a pleasant surprise from Srinagar when he offered to talk to Pakistan. Is there any reason, other than sheer populism, to make such an announcement from Srinagar rather than elsewhere? Traditionally the announcement should have come in Parliament that was then in session. The opposition chose not to question the propriety of a thinly veiled policy pronouncement but it did press for demystification of the government's foreign policy on Pakistan and its domestic policy on J&K. We wanted to know and would still like to know why so many of our soldiers stood on alert at the border and the line of control for months together under trying conditions. When they were finally withdrawn, what had been achieved? Have we simply forgotten the attack on Parliament and Kaluchak? Why has the government retreated from its rigid position of no talks till terrorism ends?' or have they?

Even as MPs from Pakistan were being feted in Delhi I flew out to Geneva to the Pugwash Conference on India-Pakistan dialogue. Interestingly many soldiers who had once viciously and valiantly fought each other on behalf of their respective countries were there. So were distinguished Foreign Service officers, as well as some other senior public figures and civil society representatives. General Jehangir Karamat, former Chief of Pakistan Army and the person under whom General Musharraf once served; a fine soldier, armoured corps officer, and a gentleman to boot who resisted what his successor could not, and consciously promoted growth of democracy; Mr. Sattar, former Ambassador to India and former Foreign Minister, General Asad Durrani, General Talat Masood, etc presented Pakistan's case or point of view. I had the honour to present our country's perception in the company of stalwarts like Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, Admiral Ramdas, Maharaj Kishan Rasgotra, P.K. Kaul, Mani Dixit, Hamid Ansari, Prakash Shah, Prem Chopra and Prof. Ramamurthi Rajaraman. The last is an accomplished physicist, who along with Prof. Stroot and Prof.Paulo Ramusino has been campaigning for global nuclear disarmament.

Although Pugwash', a movement for peace started by Bertrand Russell and Albert Eipustien, had invited us in our personal capacities, and we were under no obligation to support œOfficial positions, our presentations predictably supported our respective national postures. How much more difficult official level talks would be became apparent during our discussions. We did not find any easy openings and solutions but we certainly had a good deal of determination to move forward. More than fifty years have gone by but India and Pakistan are nowhere near the path of peace. Changes across the world and nearer home have forced both countries to look afresh at the peace initiative, indeed at the peace imperative. The break-up of the USSR lost us our security blanket; 9/11 rocked Pakistan out of USA's lap only to return to it under conditions of good conduct' unimaginable only weeks earlier. But India's growing influence in Washington has not been able to snap relations between US and Pakistan, kept intact under compulsion of œwar on terror and need of the US to preserve links with the Islamic world.

The peace pipe smoking done by the Prime Minister may well have a lot to do with the nudging and persuasion by US. Pakistan's eager response almost spontaneously may also have a great deal to do with their parleys with top US policy makers. Is there then a grand plan or a blue print drawn up by the State Department? And does that plan coincide with our aspirations? Or does it promise Pakistan the lost kingdom' it has desperately and at times even ruthlessly sought?

The reality of a unipolar world can of course not be over looked. USA's aggressive role in Afghanistan (where it had considerable worldwide support) and in Iraq (Where opposition to its plans was rigorous and widespread) as well as its unilateral declaration that it has a roadmap for Palestine, has to be understood properly to assess its likely attitude to the outcome of India-Pakistan dialogue. India is no push over. We are a nuclear country, the eighth largest economy of the world. We should talk to Pakistan if we are ourselves so inclined, not because US tells us to. If instead we return to the dialogue because America persuades us, the window of persuasion may be difficult to close in future. What if the US finds our final position unreasonable? We have seen that what others, including the UN, consider unreasonable, US perceived to be an obligation that brooked no compromise. Have the Prime Minister and his national Security Adviser, Brijesh Mishra, understood why they could not have offered their good offices for a dialogue between President Bush and Saddam Hussain? The rules of Iraq do not seen to.

The talks will take place although it may be some time before we see a definite shape emerge. The stated positions of India and Pakistan leave little space for manoeuvre. The unwritten compact of Shimla 1972 once seemed very promising but has been dismissed by Pakistan as far-fetched. They have done precious little to secure for themselves leadership of the Islamic world. Their record of governance could hardly inspire more people to join them. Their treatment of POK isn't exactly an attractive show window for people on this side of the LOC. Kashmir needs huge investments and cannot be a great revenue earner for a long time. Why do they still insist that they must have Kashmir? So whilst government representative talk about whether they can or cannot, or indeed from our side, more accurately why they cannot have Kashmir, people outside government should explore why they want it. If it is more than a mere habit of asking, or an outmoded and even mistaken idea of their exclusive claim to represent Muslims of the Sub-continent (but think of the Muslims of India and Bangladesh!) then there is something to worry.

How much of this is a priority of the Pakistani people? Equally how much does it matter to our people. Do enough people know what is going on? Is the threat of terrorist attacks or a nuclear holocaust real enough to people in UP, Andhra Pradesh or Tamil Nadu? Is the peace dividend tangible enough for an ordinary Indian's imagination? Before we talk to Pakistan, should we mot talk to Indians, all Indians, including Kashmiris? The efforts of Mr. N. N. Vohra on behalf of the government and Mr. Ram Jethmalani as head of the Kashmir Committee have yet to show tangible results and the rest of the country continues to guess.

Salman Khurshid