Talk without hope so there's hope for civility
By M J Akbar
Sensible nations either go to war or negotiate peace; they don’t sulk. So it is sensible for India and Pakistan to resume talks at a formal level. The tricky part is to discover what kind of talk makes sense.
War is always much easier to start than peace. You need only a trumpet to launch hostilities. Peace requires a rather more complicated orchestra; there will be discordant notes from some insistent trombone; the bass could be playing a military march; all musicians might not read from the same sheet; and there is always the likelihood of liberal violins airing strains more relevant to heaven than to realists who live on earth. If the maestro-conductor tears his hair occasionally, you can understand why.
The heavy breathing about the February 25 talks between foreign secretaries Nirupama Rao and Salman Bashir suggests that neither Indian nor Pakistani media, which sit in the front row and shape the response of the audience, have quite understood what a bilateral dialogue between hostile neighbours is all about. Each journalist is cranking up the decibel level around one question, and one question only: what will the diplomats say when they meet?
You don’t need a sting operation to find out what Ms Rao will say. Defence minister A K Antony has already informed us that infiltration has not gone down, and cordite from Pune is still in the air. She has no option except to hammer away at terrorism and the “war by other means” that Pakistan launched after its failure to seize the Kashmir valley by irregular and then regular forces in 1947-48. The strategy for subversion was initiated by the same person who planned the first war, a Colonel Akbar Khan. He adopted the rather ambitious nom de plume “Tariq”, after Tariq bin Ziad, Arab conqueror of Spain in 712. He wrote two papers after ceasefire on January 1, 1949, “What Next in Kashmir?” and “Keep the Pot Boiling in Abdullah’s Kashmir”. Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan sanctioned Rs 1 million to arm a “people’s militia” in Indian Kashmir. The Abdullahs have moved into their third generation, but the blood in that pot has not stopped boiling. The outcome of the dialogue on February 25 will be determined not by what Ms Rao says but by what she hears.
No prizes for guessing what her counterpart will say: precisely the same thing that his ministry has been saying for six decades: Kashmir, Kashmir, Kashmir. In the old days, they were more focused and claimed that Kashmir belonged to Pakistan. These days they are a little more circumspect in letting “Azad Kashmiris” some leeway; but they are still certain that Kashmir does not belong to India. In the time left, Salman Bashir will talk about Indus waters, but that is a comparatively minor issue since India has, in principle, accepted the responsibility of an upper riparian state to share water with territory lower down. Disputes over quantum are really small potatoes.
In the absence of real answers, the practice has been to resort to platitudes. Platitudes survive because they have latitude. The problem is that the flexibility of excuses has been fully exhausted. There is a tired ring to the deadpan explanation for terrorism: “we must address core issues”, meaning Kashmir. There will be a me-too variation this time; an injured expression and the hapless suggestion that Pakistan too is a victim of terrorism. This risible argument does not bear examination. The fact that terrorists with another cause blow up Peshawar can hardly be justification for Pakistani establishment help to those who want to blow up Srinagar, or Mumbai, or Pune. As for Kashmir, Pakistan has signed two agreements, at Tashkent in 1966 and at Shimla in 1972, endorsing the ceasefire line of January 1, 1949 as the effective border: if anything, Tashkent was more specific than Shimla. A third treaty confirming this would end the dispute, but no one has suggested that this is on the agenda.
Is there anything new to say or hear? Are we going to talk for the sake of talks? That may be better than not talking at all, but it would be useful to place a marker along the way to the conference hall. This is about civilians pretending to be civil, not about finding solutions. There is no solution apart from the status quo, and if the status quo were acceptable to Pakistan we would have had warmth and cooperation after 1972 — and, by now, dozens of authors trying to make money out of books on Pindia. Pindia, after all, has a nicer ring to it than Chindia, and it makes a more dramatic story than analysis of frosty neighbours secretly delighted that the Himalayas separate them.
Let us talk without hope so that there may be hope for civility.
Appeared in Times of India - February 21, 2010