Feb 28, 2009

Composite dialogue

DIFFERENCES cannot be resolved without dialogue and communication. Mutual mistrust can be ironed out only when people sit down together and talk with forthrightness and honesty of purpose. This is precisely what is required to ‘normalise’ relations between Pakistan and India in the wake of the Mumbai attacks that left more than 170 dead last November. But it seems that the Indian government prefers at this juncture to keep relations strained, for a variety of reasons that are rooted in both history and political expediency.

It is indeed unfortunate that India has rejected an offer, extended by Pakistan’s foreign secretary at the Saarc standing committee meeting in Colombo on Thursday, to resume the composite dialogue that was suspended after the assault on Mumbai. The composite dialogue had, before it was halted, done much to defuse tensions and improve cultural and trade ties between the two neighbours. Now, it seems, we are back to square one. This makes it all the more imperative that the peace process be restarted at the earliest.

Prior to the Mumbai massacre, some headway had been made in the long overdue demarcation of maritime borders, and that too beyond the usual confines of the conference table. Even an issue as thorny as Kashmir was up for discussion, with Pakistan showing unprecedented flexibility in its stance, a gesture that was sadly not reciprocated by India. The thaw produced by the composite dialogue saw the introduction of a bus service across the Line of Control, greater people-to-people contact, and musicians and actors being greeted with warmth whenever they crossed the border. Pakistanis travelled to India and Indians to Pakistan to see cricket matches between the two countries. For a time, all too brief as it turned out, it seemed that we had finally buried the hatchet and learned to live as neighbours.

India is now bent on exploiting the Mumbai tragedy to Pakistan's disadvantage. It has the sympathy of the western world and hundreds of millions of consumers for the products churned out by Europe and America. It touts itself, and is seen by the West, as secular. Pakistan, in contrast, is being called the most dangerous country on the face of the planet, where ‘jihadis’ can cut deals with a government that is unable to enforce its writ. New Delhi’s strategy stems partly from the historical grudge between the two countries, an almost primeval desire to grind the other into the dirt. But the more immediate reason is political: elections are due shortly in India and Pakistan-bashing will win votes. India must keep in mind, however, that after some initial lethargy Pakistan has bent over backwards to nab those with alleged links to the Mumbai assault. Engaging in a vendetta will serve neither country’s cause.

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