Peace talks in a rut
24 July, 2008
By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
LAHORE: Following the 'successful' summit between the foreign ministers of Pakistan and India last month, another meeting between foreign secretaries concluded in New Delhi this week. And as in the past, the only tangible output is a commitment by both sides to take forward the 'peace process'. It is not that people on both sides of the border are opposed to the peace initiative which picked up steam after the tensions generated by the suicide attack on the Indian Parliament late in 2001 were defused with Washington's help. Indeed, the process has brought with it all sorts of fringe benefits like a relative relaxation in the countries' visa regimes. However, more than six years on, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that very little progress has been made on substantive issues.
Many who want change in Pakistan and India were of course sceptical about the backdrop under which the 'peace process' was initiated; the start of America's 'war on terror' meant that Washington had renewed interest in the region and both the BJP government of the time and the military regime in Pakistan were suddenly prodded into making peace overtures. There was something especially disingenuous about Pervez Musharraf, who masterminded the Kargil war in 1999, metamorphosing into a dove.
The 'encouragement' of Washington aside, things proceeded rosily enough for some time, with 'people-to-people' contact increasing significantly, particularly around the motif of 'cricket for peace'. There have been major jolts along the way, particularly when George Bush visited India and proposed the nuclear deal.
Still, as the latest round of talks suggests, the process itself has not been derailed. However, discerning observers are wondering just how long the posturing will continue. To be fair, there is a new elected government in power in Islamabad and this entails somewhat of a departure from the unquestioned monopoly of defence and strategic policy by the military.
Having said this, the men in khaki will continue to maintain their commitment to the status quo and the real question is how bold the new coalition will be in challenging the military's control over foreign policy matters. Quite predictably, many Pakistanis are already frustrated about what appears to be the dithering of the Pakistan People's Party-led majority.
Indeed the reality of the 'peace process' is that it is less about Indo-Pak relations and more about the
structure of power within both states. The Indian establishment, much to the benefit of Islamabad's propaganda machine, refuses to acknowledge the legitimate claims of Kashmiris for self-determination (not that Kashmiris necessarily harbour much affection towards Pakistan). Meanwhile, the Pakistani military maintains almost total control over state affairs.
Both the countries' core positions reflect the basic inflexibility of their respective establishments. India says anything is possible but a resolution of the Kashmir dispute, whereas Pakistan continues to say nothing is possible without resolution of Kashmir, continuing to preach to the Pakistani public that Kashmir is a symbol of the unfinished project of state formation. And all the while a monstrous build-up of arms continues, notwithstanding the arguments of the nuclear deterrence camp.
Both countries do not want change because it simply does not suit them. Peace posturing can be expected to continue because both governments are happy to sing to Washington's tune and, for the time being, Indo-Pak rivalry is only the second most popular game in town. However, very little will change beneath the surface.
Rather than continuing to put all of our eggs in this 'peace' basket, it is necessary to acknowledge the grim reality that a lot of conflict is likely to take place before a lasting and meaningful peace can be established.
This is not to necessarily foreshadow bloodshed but only to point out that real peace is not possible in the midst of structural violence. As talk of nuclear deals and surgical strikes abounds, sane voices on both sides of the border need to take the fight to their establishments.