Whither composite dialogue?

Friendly Fire

Khalid Saleem

Look at it from any perspective you like, the composite (or comprehensive, if you please) dialogue between India and Pakistan appears to have run its course. Those hankering after its resumption had better look elsewhere for redemption. Calling off of the projected Foreign Secretaries’ meeting has not changed the ground realities, one way or the other. The composite dialogue looked good while it lasted. It had its highs along with its lows. Above all it kept hopes alive and gave the liberal brigade something to chatter about. But now all that is passé. After having run aground thanks to the stormy battering it received post-Mumbai, it may well be time to give the composite dialogue process a decent burial and go back to the drawing-board.
It may not be out of place to dwell on what led to the India-Pakistan Joint declaration of June 1997 (yes, the concept was concretized in 1997 and not 2004 as is commonly believed!). The basis for the concept lay in the shared belief of the then governments of the two countries that a ‘mechanism’ was needed to go about the business of reaching accommodation on the contentious issues between them. The precept of ‘Confidence-Building Measures’, or CBMs, was included at the desire of the Indian side that argued it was necessary to prepare the ground prior to taking concrete steps towards normalization of relations. The rationale for making the mechanism a ‘composite’ process was to ensure simultaneous progress on all issues so that neither side tried to push any issue to the proverbial back-burner. The Foreign Secretaries were mandated to meet periodically to monitor progress on all issues, as well as to negotiate on the most contentious of the issues – the Jammu and Kashmir dispute.
The composite dialogue process never had a smooth sailing. The problems started when India successfully maneuvered to shift the limelight on to CBMs and away from the contentious issues. As time passed, the Pakistan side appears to have gone along, so much so that in due course of time the CBMs came to be regarded as an end in itself rather than the means to an end. To be fair, the CBMs had their emollient effect, but the resultant improvement in the bilateral environment was not capitalized upon to make progress on the basic issues. Thereafter it was all downhill.
There remains a strong lobby within India that continues to believe that ‘gaining time’ goes in India’s favour and that, if sufficient time is allowed to elapse, the issues will ‘solve themselves’ on India’s terms. It is this lobby that has put the spanner in the works every time light was discernable at the end of the tunnel. Not that the Pakistan side is free of the blame. In Pakistan too there exists a lobby that is all sold out in favour of CBMs and nothing beyond. Needless to add, both these lobbies take a shortsighted view of the situation, thus making concrete headway difficult if not impossible.
India and Pakistan are destined to be neighbours for all times to come. It is in the interest of both the countries as well as their peoples to promote peace, normalization and good neighbourliness. For this to come about, concrete steps to settle the contentious issues in a fair and equitable manner are necessary. Mere papering over of the cracks or pious platitudes just will not do. Thus far, the – now moribund – composite dialogue process appears to have been bogged down in the ‘crises management mode’, while singularly failing to step into the ‘issue settlement mode’, that would have been the logical step.
Apologists on both sides of the border continue to make optimistic noises, but offer no road map to take the peace process to its logical conclusion. Without a time bound road map, efforts to revive the process are nothing better than trying to latch the stable door after the horse has bolted. It should not need a soothsayer to fathom that the process has outlived its usefulness, such as it was, and should logically be allowed to die a natural death.
What, then, about the outlook for the future? If the leaderships of the two countries are sincerely desirous of moving ahead and keeping up with the rest of the world, a new mechanism to replace the composite dialogue process would need to be devised. This mechanism should be one that is mandated to work for long-term settlement of contentious issues and not mere short-term papering-over of the cracks. Once the contentious issues are on the way to final settlement, such mutually-beneficial steps as increased commerce, cultural exchanges and cooperation in security matters will automatically follow.
So this time, how about agreeing on starting with serious, time-bound negotiations issue by issue? One could make a beginning by solving the simplest one before moving on to the more complicated ones. Perhaps the issue most amenable to a settlement in the short run is the Sir Creek squabble. Its early settlement will set the ball rolling and in the process lead to the long delayed demarcation of the maritime boundary between the two countries. A settlement of this one issue will not only pave the way for moving ahead on other more complicated ones, but will also send the right signals to the international community.
Mutual cooperation for development is the name of the game in the twenty-first century. Recriminations, finger-pointing and scoring debating points at the expense of each other, as hitherto, will take two countries nowhere. All that is needed is a resolve to succeed. As the Chinese say, every journey has to start with a single step. Are our two countries prepared to take the crucial first step?
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.

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