This Article is From Jul 12, 2015

Great, Pak Talks Have Resumed. But Nothing's Changed.

The story of Indo-Pak engagement is replete with the names of places - Shimla & Tashkent, Agra and Lahore spring to mind immediately. To this list of destinations, we now add another - Ufa. Ufa is a place I'd never heard of and would never be able to find on a map without considerable assistance, but now is a place that will be seared into my memory. Every time the subject of India's stop-start dialogue with Pakistan comes up Ufa, will find mention. Ufa, an unlikely name but very apt for what turned out to be a very unlikely development.

The last few months have not been kind to India-Pakistan relations. From the high of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's presence at the Modi swearing-in, we have seen a series of lows. The border and Line of Control have been active with serious violations of the ceasefire, often resulting in casualties on either side. The "chai pe charcha" between the Pakistani High Commissioner in Delhi and the senior leaders of the Hurriyat Conference saw a peeved India abruptly call off the Foreign Secretary-level talks between the two countries. Pakistan's handling of the 26/11 trial, and the ease with which the people India holds responsible for the attack were getting bail, was another sore point in the relationship. Finally, you had the threats and counter-threats that followed on from the military operation in Myanmar. A minister in the Government of India saw fit to use the Myanmar example to warn "others", a clear hint towards Pakistan. True to form, Pakistan responded by waving the threat of its nuclear arsenal in India's face.

None of this made for an atmosphere conducive for any sort of dialogue, much less one between the two Prime Minsters. How far from any sort of dialogue we were is evidenced by what Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj is quoted as having said on the May 31 while presenting her ministry's report card - "as said earlier, our dialogue with Pakistan will only materialise in a peaceful milieu. This zone will be created only when Pakistan takes action against the (terror) perpetrators like Lakhvi and others".

Clearly, the ice-breaker came when PM Modi telephoned his counterparts in the region to wish them on the eve of the holy month of Ramzan. After this call, stories started to appear in the media that the two leaders would meet on the sidelines of the SCO in Ufa. The run-up to this meeting wasn't without its share of tragedy after two soldiers of the BSF were killed in different incidents of ceasefire violation, one as recently as the day before the scheduled meeting.

All this explains why the developments in Ufa caught almost all of us (perhaps Ms Swaraj too) by surprise. Not only did we have a meeting between the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan, but the meeting overshot its scheduled time, and the biggest surprise of all, it was followed by a joint statement read out by the two Foreign Secretaries together.  

I'm a converted peacenik, having done my fair share of sabre-rattling in my younger days. I'd like to believe I've mellowed over time and am now a committed supporter of any sort of engagement between India and Pakistan.

That having been said, the most recent development has forced me to ask some questions, foremost amongst them - pray tell what has changed? What has happened on the ground to negate all that was said and done over the last 12 months? Has Lakhvi been arrested or do we at least have a firm commitment from the Pakistanis that his detention is imminent? Is the ceasefire going to hold now? Will the launch pads that are used to infiltrate terrorists into my state go quiet now? What about the attacks in Kashmir, will they stop? The BJP has never tired of telling us that violence and dialogue can't go on side-by-side. Can I assume that with the resumption of the dialogue, violence will be a thing of the past? If the answer to any of these questions is a negative or even a halfhearted positive, then what was the last year wasted for? Why do we always have to see this flip-flop where we take a step forward with Pakistan and then end up taking three steps back? If nothing much has changed on the ground, then wouldn't it have been better to build on the atmospherics of the Modi-Sharif meeting last year?

Coupled with this is a question I'd like to see the spokespersons of the BJP answer once they are done congratulating themselves - what happens the next time the Hurriyat are invited to the Pakistani High Commission, perhaps for an Iftar or a cup of tea? Will you break off the dialogue in a fit of anger again? The next time a solider is killed on the border or LoC, what will happen to this fragile dialogue process? What about if, God forbid, there is a big terror strike somewhere in the country? What happens the next time Lakhvi and his ilk make anti-India statements while roaming free? The process of India-Pakistan dialogue can't be held hostage to knee-jerk reactions based on ever-shifting lines drawn in the sand.

There is no mention of Kashmir in the statement, something that hasn't been missed here in the Valley. This time around, we've been included in the all-encompassing "outstanding issues". I've never advocated a "Kashmir first and all other issues to follow" approach to the dialogue process, but I will also not support any move to put the issue on the back burner. We've lost a quarter of a century to mindless violence, countless precious lives have been snuffed out, and thousands of families who were forced to find shelter outside the Valley are still living with the hope of returning home. So while some may consider the absence of a clear mention of Kashmir as a victory, we Kashmiris are deeply suspicious of any move to underplay the importance of Kashmir to the entire process, and to lasting peace in the region.

You will excuse me if I don't seem overly excited at the developments in Ufa. I've been witness to too many highs in the India-Pakistan relationship to not be aware of the deep lows that almost always follow. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I'll just sit back and wait to see what happens to "all outstanding issues". Am I pessimistic? No I'm not, it's just that my optimism is tempered with an ever-increasing dose of caution - but I'd love to be proved wrong this one time.

(Omar Abdullah is National Conference leader and former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir)

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