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Indo-Pak trust deficit

The two came close to a deal on Siachen but squandered the chance - with trust deficit over cross-border terror shadowing bilateral ties.

india Updated: Dec 26, 2006 16:09 IST

It was a year of missed opportunities for India and Pakistan - the two neighbours came close to a deal over the Siachen glacier but squandered the chance - with trust deficit over continuing cross-border terrorism shadowing their bilateral ties.

But as the new year dawns, there is guarded optimism and pragmatism on both sides of the border about resolving the Kashmir issue over which the two neighbours have fought two of their bitter wars, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calling for a Treaty of Peace, Security and Friendship between India and Pakistan.

India's suspicion of Pakistani establishment's suspected complicity in the July 11 multiple bombings in commuter trains of Mumbai that left at least 187 dead and hundreds injured and Pakistan's vehement denial of any involvement in it, however, remained the leitmotif of bilateral ties this year.

In many ways, it mapped a predictable trajectory in their complicated relationship - India accusing Pakistan of sponsoring terror from across the border whenever a major strike took place in this country and Islamabad asking for concrete evidence and attributing New Delhi's charge to paranoia.

But this time round, the intensity of feelings in India over the Mumbai bombings led New Delhi to postpone foreign secretary-level talks, scheduled to be held here July 20, fuelling speculation about a freeze in the peace process.

In a television address to the people of Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf responded by asking for evidence and asserted that his country too was a victim of terrorism.

As the two sides persisted with their positions, the peace process halted for over two months till Manmohan Singh and Musharraf broke the ice on September 15 in Havana on the sidelines of a Non-Aligned Movement summit.

The Havana declaration, issued after their talks, came out with a trailblazing idea of setting up an anti-terror institutional mechanism - quickly derided by hawks here who pointed to the absurdity of cooperating with a country sponsoring terrorism - and looked ahead by enjoining upon both sides to "narrow down divergences and build upon convergences" to resolve all issues, including Kashmir.

The two leaders also agreed to resume foreign secretary-level talks and agreed to expedite resolution of the Siachen issue and chalk out maritime boundary of the disputed Sir Creek - the narrow strip of marshland separating Sindh in Pakistan and Gujarat in India.

Two months later, the two sides set up a joint anti-terror mechanism during the resumed foreign secretary-level talks.

But even as they promised to embark on a new beginning, India's inability to produce the much-touted evidence collected by its intelligence agencies linking Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) with the Mumbai bombings came as a dampener to many in India who felt somewhat disappointed by this last-minute anti-climax.

The Indian side sought to put a gloss over this failure by saying that a legal hitch prevented it from furnishing the Mumbai evidence to Pakistan as no formal charge sheet had been filed in a court, but the public opinion, incensed over mindless slaughter of civilians in the train bombings, was not satisfied.

The Indian side, however, claimed to have furnished "some evidence" establishing involvement of Pakistan's state agencies in other terror incidents in its territory.

Pakistan predictably went on an offensive blaming India for its visceral "habit of finger-pointing" hours after any terrorist strike in India.

The two nuclear-armed neighbours may have bought a momentary truce by letting the anti-terror mechanism take care of terrorism-related concerns, but the trust deficit that was at the bottom of it saw no sign of easing.

Nearly a month later, when Pakistan's Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri visited India to attend a wedding, he underlined the importance of building trust at a brief interaction with reporters after the goodwill lunch hosted by his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee, thus acknowledging a key attitudinal problem that continues to dog bilateral ties.

Terrorism apart, as the year ends there is a refreshing pragmatism by the Pakistani side on resolving the Kashmir issue.

In an interview to NDTV, Musharraf said Pakistan was ready to give up its claim on independence of Kashmir if India accepted his four-point proposal consisting of a joint supervisory mechanism, self-governance, demilitarisation and making the Line of Control irrelevant.

This was the first time any Pakistani leader had said in so many words that Islamabad was ready to shift from its decades-old position provided India too moved away from its stated position for a resolution of the Kashmir issue.

Surprisingly, Musharraf's idea has gone down well with the Indian side - last year the external affairs ministry had slammed proposals of self-governance and demilitarisation asking Pakistan to first look within.

In fact, India has guardedly welcomed Musharraf's Kashmir formula.

In a speech this month near the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest of Sikh shrines, Manmohan Singh outlined a robustly optimistic vision of India-Pakistan relations and welcomed new ideas - a clear reference to Musharraf's four-point proposal - and underlined the need to establish a Treaty of Peace, Security and Friendship between the two countries.

"Last week I had read about some new ideas and thoughts expressed from Pakistan. We welcome all ideas as they contribute to the ongoing thought process," Manmohan Singh said.

"The destinies of our two nations are interlinked. We need to put the past behind us," he stressed.

This underlined New Delhi's willingness to engage with Islamabad on an issue that has shadowed their ties for nearly six decades as Musharraf's idea represented a convergence of approach and a vindication of what Manmohan Singh has been stressing all along about creating a soft border through cross-border confidence building measures like boosting free flow of trade and people across the divided Kashmir.

"If both sides approach issues with an open and friendly mind, and work together on resolving each of these, then it will be possible for us to resolve all pending issues through a dialogue process," Manmohan Singh said.

True, the positions of the two sides on self-governance and joint management of the state remain different, but it looked like back channel talks in which these so-called out-of-box ideas had remained active are doing their work.

If this spirit of realism prevails in the next year, it's possible that Manmohan Singh could visit Pakistan next year with a possible breakthrough on demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier being the highlight of his visit.

Also, what the year gone by showed was a rare maturity by both sides to keep the nearly three-year-old peace process on course despite serious provocations and temptations to indulge in trite rhetoric.

The confidence-building process kept pace with the launch of a trans-border train connecting Munabao in Rajasthan and Khokrapar in Sindh and the launch of the Amritsar-Nankana Sahib bus service early this year.

There are plans to further boost cross-border linkages by launching a Kargil-Skardu bus service and accelerating trade between the two countries.

"I too have a vision regarding India and Pakistan. I earnestly hope that the relations between our two countries become so friendly and that we generate such an atmosphere of trust between each other that the two nations would be able to agree on a Treaty of Peace, Security and Friendship," Manmohan Singh said in Amritsar.

At yearend, Pakistan seems to have shown some newfound pragmatism as opposed to an earlier ideology-heavy approach, and visits by the Indian foreign minister, and perhaps later the prime minister, to Pakistan next year raise hopes among ordinary people in both countries that the impossible can yet happen and the 'soft border' can be more than just a dream in the not too distant future.

First Published: Dec 26, 2006 16:09 IST