Reducing trust deficit

India and Pakistan foreign secretaries’ meet at Islamabad has not made much headway though the two have prepared the ground and agenda for the meeting of the foreign ministers of the two countries scheduled for July 15. Iftikhar Geelani reports.
The first round of talks since the thaw in India-Pakistan relations initiated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani nearly two months ago, ended without making any tangible headway or announcements. It is believed that both foreign secretaries who met in Islamabad have put in place some “modest steps” to be announced by the foreign ministers when they meet at the same venue on July 15. Both prime ministers had directed their foreign ministers and foreign secretaries to meet and work out the modalities of restoring trust between the two countries.
Significantly, Foreign Secretaries agreed to enhance counter-terror cooperation to deny extremist elements any opportunity to derail their improving relationship as their foreign secretaries held talks to firm up “comprehensive, sustained and meaningful dialogue”. Insiders say, sensing Pakistan’s combative mood on Kashmir, fostered by the political drift and anger on Srinagar streets, India had proposed to strengthen existing Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) to promote trade and transit across LoC. But Pakistan insisted on political CBMs involving reduction of troops deployed in Kashmir, revocation of black laws and providing equitable political space to separatists as well. Though, India publicly has dismissed Pakistan’s suggestion to revoke black laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), it has conveyed its “eagerness” to make the law humane.
A major result of these talks was revival of Sharm el-Sheikh outlook to de-link terror incidents from the “serious, sustained and compressive dialogue”. “We must deny terrorist elements any opportunity to derail the process of improving the relationship,” said India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao after airing New Delhi’s “core concerns” over terrorism at delegation-level talks with her Pakistani counterpart Salman Basheer. “We believe that dialogue is the best way forward,” Rao said at a packed press conference, the first joint media interaction the two sides have held since India suspended dialogue with Pakistan after the 26/11 Mumbai carnage, indicating a further easing of ties.
Calling for ‘creative solutions” for Kashmir problem, Rao called for revival of understanding to make boundaries irrelevant and allow people on both sides of the LoC to move freely and trade with one another. She said it was to this goal, a number of cross-LoC CBMs were put in place, which included the opening of five crossing points on the LOC; introduction of triple entry permits; increase in frequency of  Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalkot bus services; starting of cross-LOC trade on Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalakote routes through movement of trucks, etc.
The meeting was meant to be a bureaucratic exercise to prepare ground and agenda for the ministerial meeting. Rao and Bashir have broken bread in Beijing, Vilnius and Moscow during respective diplomatic postings. It is believed that foreign secretaries of two countries except for brief periods have not shown a camaraderie. Salman Haider and Shamshad Ahmed Khan did strike a chord together under Inder Kumar Gujral and Nawaz Sharief respectively to sew the Composite Dialogue (CD) Process identifying eight issues and setting up Joint Working Groups (JWG) led by respective secretaries to discuss these issues in June 1997.
Earlier the chemistry worked during during P V Narasimha Rao’s stewardship when J N Dixit and Pakistan’s Shahryar Khan got along. They had agreed on a settlement of Siachen dispute, but in the wee hours of the morning when the settlement was to be made public, Narasimha Rao went back on the agreement. Still, it is believed that Dixit-Khan formula is the only possible settlement of Siachen.
Officials who were present at the first meeting in New York last September between Rao and Bashir – the latter relinquished his post as ambassador in Beijing, where the former continued as envoy for another year – said it went beyond formal pleasantries.
Rejecting the notion that India has softened its stand on terrorism, sources in the External Affairs Ministry here emphasised on building relationship as well while seeking steps to deal with the core concern of terrorism. “We must pay attention to communication and dialogue as well and see it is not broken. It is the vehicle to convey our concerns and communicate our stands on number of issues,” they added. Maintaining that Pakistan has been told in unequivocal terms that terrorist incidents only complicate dialogue process in view of public opinion turning against it. “As threat of terrorism continues, progress on substantive issues becomes difficult, which is already difficult,” they said.
Official sources further said, though there was no specific agenda for the talks, India conveyed its readiness to pick up threads from the peace process that existed between 2004 and 2006 during former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf’s tenure. India also presented a slew of proposals, including reducing negative lists in the trade menu, arranging a meeting between commerce ministers (the level could be discussed), seeking transit route to Afghanistan and most favoured nation (MFN) status from Pakistan. Further “modest steps” included addressing humanitarian issues, fixing a meeting of judicial committee to address issue of prisoners, enhance economic and commercial ties, review and increase items of trade across LoC, greater people-to-people contacts and interactions.
Whatever steps External Affairs Minister or the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) plan to take in order to build trust and confidence with Pakistan, they have to battle it out with their own home ministry to put them in place. Home Minister M. Chidambaram is also pitted against Foreign Office to allow people-to-people contacts, an important constituent to build trust. Not only has Chidambaram’s ministry made visa provisions stringent for Pakistanis, it has also refused to liberalise permits for students wishing to pursue studies in the South Asian University in Delhi. The ministry has even withdrawn the discretionary powers of the Indian high commissioner in Pakistan to issue visas. Most visas in Pakistan were being issued under these powers until now.
Home ministry’s forays for stringent visa norms are not restricted to Pakistanis alone. Last February, external affairs ministry was scurrying for cover, when home ministry issued orders that scholars from Iran need a prior clearance before they can be granted visas by the Indian embassy in Tehran. This order coincided with External Affairs Minister S M Krishna announcing to visit Tehran to seek cooperation in Afghanistan. A similar order was issued for Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi scholars as well.
Pakistan has already objected to the visa rules proposed by India for the students and faculty joining the Delhi-based South Asian University. Home Ministry here is insisting on issuing the visas as per the existing bilateral arrangements with various countries. Pakistan and Bangladesh are, however, insisting on a more liberal and separate visa mechanism for it as the university is going to be a SAARC institution and not property of India alone. The university is the brainchild of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who had proposed the idea of launching a South Asian University at the 13th SAARC summit held in Dhaka, and made the governments of all SAARC nations sign an agreement at the 14th SAARC summit held in New Delhi in 2008.


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