Trade for peace


Being our neighbour’s keeper

We are back full circle to a proposal long familiar to the people in India and Pakistan: keep business separate from Kashmir. There was a time when Pakistan would refuse to have any trade with India until Kashmir was solved. New Delhi would say that it was not opposed to a solution of Kashmir, but the starting point should be business.

The meeting between PM Singh and PM Gilani broke the deadlock. As Pakistan foreign minister Hina Rabbani Kher said after returning from Maldives that Pakistan would “bend backwards” to be friendly with India. This is a welcome development, not only for the two countries but also for South Asia. Nothing in the region would move because the estrangement between India and Pakistan cast its shadow on any joint step forward. Islamabad should be complemented because it went away from an old beaten path.

Whatever Pakistan’s compulsions – the army is on board – it is a bold step which can lead to the normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan. PM Singh’s decision not to link trade with the sentence to the terrorists, who are being tried in Pakistan for the attack on Mumbai three years ago, is courageous at a time when his own stock is not high. The Indian media is mostly critical and the hawks are even abusive. But they represent a minority which sees everything in Pakistan as negative. They do not want Pakistan to fall apart but they continue talking about punishing Islamabad. Their outlook tallies with India’s main opposition party, the BJP. And left to both, the criticism of any breakthrough with Pakistan will be considered anti-national. The Pakistan media may be a shade better. But it too does not rise from the parochial angle it has followed for decades.

The bureaucracy and the intelligence agencies on both sides do not see the development at Maldives as an opportunity to shed the baggage of the last six decades and start with a clean slate. I concede that all will not change at one sweep. Relations between India and Pakistan have to be evolved and tended carefully. The path the two governments have taken will have to scale the mountains before they hit a sunny valley.

India’s grievance of Pakistan not yet punishing the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks is genuine. No explanation by Islamabad is convincing. Yet it has a point when it says that the evidence which India has provided is too weak to get favourable verdict in court. Now that Pakistan’s judicial committee is coming to India, it should be collecting as much evidence as it wants. The case must move forward. Once it happens, doubts on this end would be assuaged to a large extent. And PM Singh is quite right when he says that another Mumbai may lead to unforeseen consequences. New Delhi will expect that Islamabad does not to allow cross-border terrorism from its soil.

Yet I do not think that the case is the only hitch. Both countries do not have trust in each other and refuse to rely on the facts even when placed on the table. They are prey to a mindset and see to it that they stall the people’s desire to live as good neighbours. So long as terrorism is there no argument against mistrust will work. Joint mechanism to eliminate terrorism was supposed to be set up a few months ago. But the proposal remains on paper.

When it comes to trade, New Delhi will have to ensure that there is a level playing field for Pakistan. The balance of trade will be one indication. If Pakistan’s exports are too small compared to Indian exports, doubts may surface about New Delhi’s bona fides. True, the list of items would be prepared. But India can ask Pakistan which goods it can conveniently export to India so that there is no room for grievance or discrimination. Maybe, some of the tariff concession New Delhi has offered to Dhaka can be extended to Islamabad.

India’s aim should be aid Pakistan’s economic development so that it is not dependent on America or Saudi Arabia for assistance. This will ultimately stop foreign interference in the affairs concerning the region. Pakistan, on its part, should open the country to India’s investors. If they can buy large concerns in the UK or the US, they should be able to do so in Pakistan as well. There may be joint ventures between India and Pakistan. Economic ties in due course will become the sinews for friendship and then the gun will become superfluous.

It is understandable that the Pakistan government is under great pressure not to keep Kashmir apart. But there is no doubt that trade between the two countries will generate so much goodwill that a solution of Kashmir may become easy. After all, the governments on both sides did arrive at some understanding on Kashmir. Once when Nawaz Sharif was the PM in Pakistan, the coup by General Pervez Musharraf stalled the solution. The remark by the then PM, Atal Behari Vajpayee, was: “We were almost there.” The second time when Musharraf brokered a solution and was on the verge of inviting PM Manmohan Singh for signing the agreement on Kashmir, the lawyers’ agitation changed the scenario.

I realise that it is difficult for both sides to rub off the history. But there is no alternative to peace. They cannot change their geography and have to accept each other as they are, not as they want them to be. If Germany and France could become friends after years of war, why can’t India and Pakistan?

The writer is a senior Indian journalist.