Being neighbourly

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 16 July 2012

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This article was published on ‘The Indian Express’ on 16th July 2012





Pakistan’s civil society is eagerly working to normalise ties. India must reciprocate

Last week’s emergency landing of an Air India jetliner in Pakistan was in sharp contrast to the last time it happened — the hijacked IC-814 had landed in Lahore in December 1999,en route to Kandahar. The lucky passengers last week enjoyed the famed Pakistani hospitality,including biryani,and the brushing aside of all red tape. In 1999,just months after Kargil,and with Pakistan-based Harkat-ul-Mujahideen suspected of orchestrating the hijacking,the lack of official cooperation turned a bad situation into something far worse.

Much has happened in the intervening years; not just 9/11,the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,and 26/11,but also a substantial change in the global economic order. The world is now a very different kind of place. And yet,as French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr said in the 19th century: the more things change,the more they stay the same. Today,Pakistan and India are in yet another period of detente,with some developments worth cheering,but without clarity on how to achieve an entente that would free both countries from the shackles of their grim mutual history.

Recent months have seen some progress in improving relations,most notably on the trade front. But even that has been halting at best,bedevilled by Pakistani worries,some valid and others less so. Pakistan’s fear of being swamped by Indian goods is neither the biggest nor most logical concern,since in any case plenty of Indian goods already get in,either through third countries like the UAE or straightforward smuggling across the border.

The Pakistani concern that has more validity is that Indian non-tariff barriers would deny their exporters the benefits of integration with the largest regional economy. That restrictive Indian regulations complicate imports from everywhere,and are opposed just as strongly by Indian companies,can hardly be any solace to Pakistan,which has long been lectured on the need to reciprocate the most-favoured nation status that India has granted it since 1995. It is in India’s interest to be proactive in making this a win-win for both sides.

At the same time,the issue of cross-border terrorism keeps popping up in ways that disrupt rapprochement. There seems to be a basic disconnect on this,and not just with the Pakistani military — which would be understandable,if not agreeable. After all,the military has been just as obdurate about not winding down its “strategic assets” in Afghanistan,leading to a severe fraying of Pakistan’s relationship with the United States. What is less understandable from India’s viewpoint is that even among well-intentioned civilian stakeholders in Pakistan,sympathy for wounds inflicted on us by terrorists is tempered by some version of “enough already about 26/11,we suffer even more from terrorism,let’s just move on”.

Many Indians find that sentiment insensitive. The Pakistani mantra of recent years,that it deserves more consideration as terrorism’s biggest victim,has not found many takers in India,nor indeed in most other nations. The fact is that there is a fundamental qualitative difference in the terrorism suffered by India — the vast majority of such terrorism has some sort of a Pakistan link,usually to non-state agencies either patronised or tolerated by official ones — and the homegrown kind suffered by Pakistan.

Until Pakistani civil society accepts that essential difference as valid,there will not be adequate pressure on their military to actually do something about it,such as cracking down on safe havens operating on their soil. If that proves too politically difficult at this stage of the detente,even symbolic gestures such as extraditing Indian-origin terrorists like Abu Jundal would begin to address the trust deficit.

It would be just as illogical for India to hold its relationship with Pakistan to ransom on account of domestic Maoist terrorism,rather than introspect on it and debate it as an internal problem — which is what we are doing. Unfortunately,India has occasionally compromised its position by blaming Pakistan for incidents that have domestic roots,such as the Samjhauta Express attack. Equally unfortunate is the tendency of many in Pakistan to treat this as typical,rather than the exception that proves the rule,and,sadly,as justification that India overstates its case against cross border terrorism.

Some in Pakistan also equate India’s cross-border terrorism problem with what they allege,without substantiation,to be an Indian helping hand to some militants in Pakistan. The reality,as best as anyone has been able to verify,is that this has not been the case since at least the mid-1990s,after India’s unilateral winding down of intelligence assets across the border (the so-called Gujral Doctrine). Since then,the predominant Indian sentiment that a stable,prosperous Pakistan is overwhelmingly in India’s interest,also dictates otherwise.

The eagerness with which Pakistan’s civil society has been working towards normalisation of ties with India is genuine,and needs reciprocation at this crucial juncture. The concern among India’s policymakers,however,is whether Pakistan’s military is equally genuine about it. Certainly,the recent progress could not have happened without some kind of a nod from their army GHQ. But as long as there are safe havens in Pakistan for cross-border terrorists,questions will persist whether such nods from the GHQ are just tactical moves to tide over their present difficulties,with no strategic commitment to a lasting detente or better.

That is why defence-related breakthroughs like a Siachen settlement are stuck,and why progress will continue only at a snail’s pace until it either reaches a positive tipping point or falls hostage to another 26/11. Of course,there are steps Pakistan could take that would be in its best interest,while also sending a hugely positive signal to India. My favourite in that category: bringing the ISI under full civilian control.