Delhi to Islamabad: A bridge too far?

Delhi to Islamabad: A bridge too far?

By M.J. Akbar | 27 June, 2010
PM Manmohan Singh (PTI)

The pessimistic definition of India-Pakistan relations is succinct. The two nations are walking on different pavements on either side of a street that has caved in and become an abyss. The two are always in each other's sights, but there is no meeting point; neither has the psychological or emotional resources to mark out a zebra crossing since the traffic lights cannot be trusted. Nor does the distant horizon bend towards a common focal point. Over the last six decades, a narrow dividing pathway has become an eight-lane highway. The best you can do now, if you are bursting with the spirit of peace, is exchange pleasantries through officials; the worst is apparent in terrorist violence.

Dr Manmohan Singh is attempting something audacious in an attempt to sweeten an arsenic-laced history. Aware of such lethal road rage, he is, inch by imperceptible inch, trying to build a bridge above the traffic. It is one of those Japanese projects, in which a skyscraper hotel is built behind the walls of secure and hidden space, and then, when the moment is right, airlifted and planted from above on a clearing, an empty space that has served so far as a symbol of hope. The people are permitted some vague knowledge about the grime and sweat that is going on behind the scenes, but the effort will mean something only if and when the finished product is visible.

A bridge, however commendable, must be more than it seems to be. It may float through the air, but it must be anchored in rock. The question is as old as 1947: how firm is the ground beneath your feet? Can it deal with sappers and saboteurs nursed by differing ideals of nationalism? A sense of injustice and denial is so deeply embedded in the consciousness of Pakistani nationalism — after all, the "K" in the acronym stands for Kashmir — that it is difficult to see how Islamabad can reach a final settlement without taking that which Delhi cannot give, some part of the Muslim-majority valley. This is a classic impasse between an irresistible object and immoveable force.Image 3rd

Since there are, wisely, no secrets anymore, India's foreign secretary Nirupama Rao has publicly outlined the contours of an interim arrangement, a crucial part of a longer process, around the Singh-Musharraf formula of soft borders, trade and travel. Two questions arise. Is an interim agreement better than no agreement? Will it be a stage en route to a common destination, or will the two nations remain on separate pavements until either the immoveable shifts in Delhi or resistance collapses in Islamabad? The soft border options were, after all, in place when Mumbai was attacked; and organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba continue to receive patronage and encouragement from wide swathes of the Pak establishment.

During her visit to Islamabad, Nirupama Rao was far more considerate to her hosts than her counterpart was when he came to Delhi. She called terrorism unacceptable, but expanded it to a general principle, rather than specifically demanding that Pakistan do something about those who use the Kashmir dispute as an excuse for surrogate war. Nor did she compare the manner in which Pakistan sentences terrorists accused of war against the United States within six months, with those facing far more serious charges vis-à-vis India. On the day of Home Minister P. Chidambaram's visit to Islamabad for a Saarc meeting, IB intercepts picked up conversations between terrorists operating in the Kashmir valley and their handlers across the border. If this is what happens when the border is officially hard, we need to worry a little about what will happen if the LOC goes soft.

Perhaps Delhi's tactic is to keep the left hand of foreign office as distant from the right hand of the home ministry as possible. This is a palliative, not a cure.

Maybe the mistake being made is not in the level of dialogue, but in the level of expectations. Neighbours must talk; that is a no-brainer. But it takes more than words to convert a conversation into a love affair.

The objective environment for peace will not emerge until there is a fundamental change in objectives. The fundamental flaw is easily identified. Before you can sign off on a soft or hard border, you have to first agree on a border. India has made up its mind. If the Line of Control were turned into the international border, India would celebrate. Pakistan, for obvious reasons, would not. But as long as this basic question is not resolved, the only thing that Delhi and Islamabad can do is agree to disagree.

That, by any stretch of imagination, is not a description of peace.


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