An India-Pakistan Thaw?

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NEW DELHI – India and Pakistan are enjoying one of the better periods in their turbulent relationship. Recent months have witnessed no terrorist incidents, no escalating rhetoric, and no diplomatic flashpoints. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari just made a successful, if brief, personal visit to India (mainly to visit a famous shrine, but with a lunch with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh thrown in). Sixteen years after India granted Pakistan most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status, Pakistan is on the verge of reciprocating. The peace process is resuming, and the two sides are talking to each other cordially at all levels.

And yet it is important to understand that the problems that have long beset the bilateral relationship will not be resolved overnight. Even if, by some miracle, the Pakistani civilian and military establishment suddenly saw the light, concluded that terrorism was bad for them, and decided to make common cause with India in eradicating it, the task would not be accomplished with a snap of the fingers. Extremism is not a tap that can be turned off at will. ­­­The proliferation of extremist ideologies, militant organizations, and training camps has acquired a momentum of its own. As Satyabrata Pal, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, put it:

“These jihadi groups recruit from the millions of young Pakistanis who emerge from vernacular schools and madrassas, imbued with a hatred for the modern world, in which they do not have the skills to work. So while young Indians go to Silicon Valley and make a bomb for themselves, young Pakistanis go to the Swat Valley and make a bomb of themselves, the meanness of their lives justifying the end. Pakistan has betrayed its youth, which is its tragedy.”

This is not a counsel of despair. It is, instead, an argument to offer a helping hand. A neighboring country full of desperate young men without hope or prospects, led by a malicious and self-aggrandizing military, is a permanent threat to India. If India can help Pakistan transcend these circumstances and develop a stake in mutually beneficial progress, it will be helping itself as well. Therein lies the slender hope of persuading Pakistan that India’s success can benefit it, too – that, rather than trying to undercut India and thwart its growth, Pakistan should recognize the advantages that might accrue to it in partnership with an increasingly prosperous India.

Such an India can build on the generosity that it has often shown – for example, with its unilateral assignment of MFN status to Pakistan – by offering a market for Pakistani traders and industrialists, a creative umbrella for its artists and singers, and a home away from home for those seeking refuge from the realities of Pakistani life. Creating more points of contact – back-channel diplomacy conducted by special envoys (a formula used effectively by Singh and former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf), direct contact between the two militaries (of which there is little), and extensive people-to-people contact – is indispensable to the peace effort.

Unfortunately, India responded to the November 2008 Mumbai attacks and other Pakistani provocations by tightening its visa restrictions and restricting other possibilities for cultural and social contact. This might be an area in which risks are worth taking, since the advantages of enhancing opportunities for Pakistanis in India outweigh the dangers; after all, the Mumbai terrorists did not apply for Indian visas before sneaking ashore with their guns and bombs.

I strongly favor a liberal visa regime, which would require India to remove its current restrictions on which points of entry and exit Pakistani visa-holders can use, the number of places that may be visited, and onerous police reporting requirements. For starters, prominent Pakistanis in business, entertainment, and media could be made eligible for more rapid processing and multiple-entry visas.

Some would argue that Pakistan will not reciprocate such one-sided generosity. That might be true, but India should not care. Parity with Pakistan would lower India’s standards. India should show a generosity of spirit that might persuade Pakistanis to rethink their attitude towards Indians.

Concessions might also be made on issues that do not involve vital national interests. Specific problems like trade, the military standoff on the Siachen glacier, the territorial boundary at Sir Creek, the dispute over water flows through the Wullar Barrage, and many other disagreements are amenable to resolution through dialogue. It seems silly that public passions in Pakistan are being stirred by false claims that India is diverting water from the Indus River; candid and open talk to the Pakistani public by Indian officials would help dispel such suspicions.

More immediately, India should seize upon Pakistan’s newfound willingness to reciprocate India’s grant of MFN trade status by taking concrete steps to reduce non-tariff barriers, such as security inspections and clearances, that have limited Pakistani exports to India. India’s financial-services industry and its software professionals could offer their skills to Pakistani clients. They would gain a next-door market, while providing services that Pakistan could use to develop its own economy. These are all “easy wins” waiting to be pursued.

The big questions – the Kashmir dispute and Pakistan’s use of terrorism as an instrument of policy – will require much more groundwork and step-by-step action for progress to be achieved. By adopting a position of accommodation, sensitivity, and pragmatic generosity, India might be able to shift the bilateral narrative away from its 65-year-old logic of intractable hostility.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.

Shashi Tharoor
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Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary general and former Indian Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs, is currently a Member of Parliament for the Indian National Congress.

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