The Indo-Pak Fulcrum For SAARCMOHD ZEYAUL HAQUE (January 13, 2004)

The Indo-Pak Fulcrum For SAARC
Much depends on India-Pakistan ties for the peace and prosperity in South Asia

Last week’s summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Islamabad showed once again that relations between the two regional powers -- India and Pakistan -- was crucial to the grouping's survival and growth. The gradual thaw in Indo-Pak ties thus bodes well for the region’s peace and prosperity.

Pakistan had set the ball rolling in December by suggesting that it was prepared to jettison the long-standing demand for a plebiscite in Indian Kashmir to determine whether the people in this Muslim-majority valley would like to stay with India or go to Pakistan.

That turned out to be a major help for India, which had been opposing such a plebiscite. India, in fact, took the mere mention of a plebiscite as an act of provocation. This major hurdle gone, India too announced its preparedness for wide-ranging talks with Pakistan on “all subjects, including Kashmir”.

To go back in history, when the British were to leave the subcontinent, an arrangement was finalised to partition the land between a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. The Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, as per the Pakistani understanding of the situation, “naturally” belonged to Pakistan. However, then Hindu ruler of the state, Maharaja Hari Singh, had other ideas.

Although, he wanted his state to remain independent, he signed an Act of Accession to India in return for Indian military help to drive out a horde of Pakistani tribesmen that had invaded Kashmir after partition. By the end of the armed struggle, Pakistan had nibbled away almost one third of the state. In the 1962 Sino-Indian war, the Chinese captured nearly 20 percent of the original J & K state, leaving India with around 45 percent of the territory.

 Needless to say, India is not amused at the suggestion of further parceling out of J & K territory. The dropping of the plebiscite ideas by Pakistan has thus been of help to India. As a significant gesture, India too has given up insisting on a complete halt to militant violence in Kashmir as a precondition for talks.

Yet another encouraging development at the summit was a broad understanding on “terrorism”. This term has eluded a reasonable, widely acceptable definition so far. The UN has been grappling with it since the mid–70s without much success. Even the last international summit on the issue in Cairo in the final years of last century remained inconclusive on what constitutes a “terrorist act”. Somebody’s terrorist is always likely to be someone else’s freedom-fighter. A recent US court judgement exonerating a Khalistani activist is the latest example of this division of opinion.

Even South Asia’s record in this regard has not been too encouraging. A State of Global Terror report (issued by the US State Department) in the late 90s complained that South Asia did not seem to be too keen on stopping terrorism. The only country that cooperated wholeheartedly was Sri Lanka, which itself was a victim of Tamil terrorism. That was before 9/11, and also before the attack on Indian parliament and on General Musharraf. Now everybody has reason to sit up and take note.

SAARC leaders have come to the broad understanding that random violence, usually targeted against unconcerned civilians to draw attention to political issues, is a terrorist act, and has to be treated as such. The rightness of the cause for which such acts are committed does not make the violence legitimate (as in war), or noble. This too is an important step for an area where groups like LTTE and Mukti Vahini are freedom-fighters for some people and terrorists for others.

The real test of the SAARC leadership’s will is to come later. However, with India and Pakistan beginning talks on wide-ranging issues next month should improve the situation further. More confidence-building measures (CBMs) could be announced later. Already we have the Delhi-Lahore bus service uniting divided families living in India and Pakistan and a restored air link. The unhindered flow of people across the borders, an important element in Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s vision of SAARC as a future European Union, is seeming possible now.

The enthusiasm with which Pakistanis have received Indian leaders is a good sign. Earlier we thought the Pakistanis were specially enamoured of Laloo Prasad, former chief minister of Bihar, for his warmth and liveliness. However, the way Vajpayee was received by the entire Pakistani political spectrum was amazing. The whole Pakistani nation seems to take him as a man of vision, a binding factor between the two countries that were one not long ago.

The summit has raised expectations that have to be met, not today or tomorrow, but in months and years ahead. It may take years to work out details of a viable peace. Till then people on both sides would have to be content with the tedious “peace process” rather than “peace” as such. Meanwhile, the guns are silent on the borders after 20 long years.

 India’s evolving relationship with China could be a model for Indo-Pak negotiations. The two sides had worked on confidence-building measures before getting down to the thorny issue of border delineation. An understanding on Tibet (under China) and Sikkim (under India) has already developed.

There is a growing awareness in SAARC that the region has failed to realise its human development potential. Even today, the world’s one-third of the poor live in the region and the human deprivation here is as appalling as in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite that the military spending here is twice that of Saudi Arabia which has a GDP 20 times higher then this region’s.

People in these countries know that they are being left behind in the race to prosperity. Nothing substantial would come unless the priorities of the leadership changes. Even a 25 percent cut in defence spending would release enormous amounts of money for development and poverty alleviation, creating favourable conditions for economic growth. The first step towards that goal was taken in Isalmabad.g

Mohd Zeyaul HAQUE

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