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Why India and Pakistan must talk

Soutik Biswas | 01:17 UK time, Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Indian and Pakistani soldier at a ceremony at the Wagah border"You don't have to fall in love to be a good neighbour; in fact romance can have harmful side-effects," says Indian analyst MJ Akbar about India and Pakistan. "But good neighbours do not pelt each other with stones (through media) or test nerves with sniper fire during their waking hours."

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. India and Pakistan are not two ordinary sparring neighbours - they are nuclear-armed estranged siblings with a history of three wars, brinkmanship and endless sniping.

Also, South Asia's defining conflict is rooted in religious differences and struggle for control over the disputed region of Kashmir. It is also an example, as Stephen Cohen says, of a "psychological paired-minority conflict" where key groups on both sides - even a majority - feel that they are the threatened, weaker party, under attack from the other side. The dispute is as knotty and intractable as that between Israel and some of its Arab neighbours. It is also energised by plenty of hate and distrust, some of it rather petty.

So a militant strike on Indian soil originating from Pakistan like the 2008 Mumbai attacks makes it difficult for any Indian government to hold back from spewing fire and brimstone on its neighbour and continue negotiations. And stones have to be pelted at each other through the media to satisfy tired domestic constituencies in both countries. It is all cheap triumphalism, and does little to mend fences.

Still the decision of the two countries to resume talks - the peace process has been in the cold storage since the Mumbai attacks - on 25 February is to be welcomed. Both sides know it is not going to be easy. Expectations are low. There are severe misgivings. India is not happy with the progress that Pakistan has made on cracking down on militants who plot and launch attacks on India. Pakistan believes it is doing all it can in its fight against the tyranny of terror on its own soil.

In fact, it appears that India took Pakistan by surprise when it offered talks earlier this month - the influential Pakistani newspaper Dawn found the offer surprising since India had indicated a willingness to move beyond the "one-point agenda it has clung to since the Mumbai attacks i.e. that Pakistan must shut down the terror infrastructure on its soil that allegedly poses a direct threat to India." Few will disagree with what the newspaper said next: "Looked at from any angle, the problems between India and Pakistan are simply too serious for them to avoid talking to each other."Demonstration against Pakistan in India

Analysts often pontificate on how the peace constituencies - people wanting peace - in both countries have grown over the years. After all, a lot of people on both sides share the same language, food, music, cinema, and literature. But such heady exchanges - a virtual cross-border cultural love-fest sponsored by two newspapers was in progress in Delhi when India offered talks - are no substitute for serious, official interaction. Romanticising the shared cultural and personal ties, many believe, will not help in solving the real problems. They also cut no ice with the vast majority of Indians and Pakistanis.

Everybody knows that there is obduracy and denial on both sides in taking on the real issues. Everybody knows that there is a deficit of bold and innovative leadership. And as far as the so-called peace constituencies go, all it needs is another Mumbai type attack to return to the odious rhetoric of hate and risky hostilities. Already, naysayers in India have been pointing to the bomb attack at a bakery in Pune over the weekend as a good reason to call off the talks.

But talk the two countries must for their own good.

So are the talks going to be an exercise in limited engagement over reining in India-hating militants in Pakistan? It is difficult to see Pakistan agreeing to that. Or will there be a slow return to the 'composite dialogue' on eight main issues bedevilling relations? It is surely going to a tight rope walk for India here.

Pakistani analyst Hasam Askari has warned that a one-dimensional dialogue over terror would result into a "non-starter." He says: "There will be no result if India talks about terrorism and Pakistan talks about its concerns [over India's strategic involvement] in Afghanistan. There has to be composite dialogue and terrorism is one of the eight issues."

Hawks in India say that the government has succumbed to international pressures to resume talks - there is a lot of talk in Delhi that the international community wants India to engage with Pakistan to help bring regional stability. Most agree that there are no short cuts to peace in a region which Bill Clinton once called the "most dangerous place in the world." But not talking doesn't help matters - especially between petulant neighbours like India and Pakistan.


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