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Between the line

In search of peace
January 20, 2010


IT was a welcome coincidence that both Bangladesh and Pakistan figured in the discussions at New Delhi this week. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was on her first official visit after a landslide victory last year. Top Pakistan lawyers, academicians and human rights activists sat in the Capital with their counterparts to find “A Road to Peace” after the governments at Delhi and Islamabad had failed to resolve their problems in the last 60 years or so.

One thing common between the meetings, held at separate places and at different levels, was the search for peace. Both have succeeded in the sense that they have taken certain decisions which, if implemented, will yield untold benefits. The difference—a big one—was while the governments of Bangladesh and the India signed several agreements to restart on a path to peace and friendship after a dreary journey, India and Pakistan have gone still further apart.

The Manmohan Singh government was at pain to accommodate Sheikh Hasina to register that India had opened all its doors to cultivate at least one of its estranged neighbours. On the other hand, New Delhi hardly took notice of the three-day Indo-Pak meeting right under its nose. The media, generally influenced by the establishment, was slightly better. That shows the difference between official and non-official initiatives, notwithstanding the fact that both represent the peoples’ aspirations. In third world countries, nothing moves without official nod.

Sheikh Hasina’s visit, which took place after one year of her rule, has come at a time when she has assessed her country’s needs and India’s capacity to meet them. She did not demand anything but it was apparent that if her government could not lift her people economically, she would slide still more on the popularity graph, already down from 83 per cent to 67 per cent as a recent survey of a Bengali daily at Dhaka shows. The Indo-Pak meet also felt the time was ripe for the two countries to start talking. In fact, its plea gives New Delhi an opportunity to think over its stand which has become counter-productive.

Sheikh Hasina’s biggest contribution to Bangladesh is the strength she has given to democratic and secular forces—the plank on which she fought election and won three-fourths seats in Jayti Sangad (parliament). India too has, in turn, gained. Lessening of fundamentalism in a neighbouring country helps. Prim Minister Manmohan Singh has in Sheikh Hasina a prime minister who will not allow its soil to be used by anti-India groups which not only have taken refuge in Bangladesh but have also been operating from there. When Dhaka handed over to Delhi the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) leaders, the insurgents from Assam, it was turning of a new leaf in relations.

In fact, during the talks between Manmohan Singh and Sheikh Hasina, when the latter took a principled stand and assured him that no terrorists would be allowed to function from her country, the entire scenario changed. She had a long list of demands. But even before she could read the first line, Manmohan Singh reportedly said that she did not have to ask for anything. Whatever is the need of Bangladesh, India will go to the farthest extent to meet it. The proposed $600 million credit to Dhaka was doubled. India gave an undertaking that it would not take any step on the Tipaimukh Hydro Electric project without the consent of Bangladesh where it had become a controversial issue. Nor did New Delhi ask for any transit facility which again was a sensitive issue with Dhaka.

The resolve to eliminate terrorism is what the region wants, from Kabul to Dhaka. Islamabad would like New Delhi to join the operation but India is in no mood to listen to Pakistani’s argument for the resumption of a composite dialogue. The 26/11 carnage, even though 13 months’ old, is still fresh in the minds of people.

The Indo-Pak meet has also appreciated the point and has suggested a bilateral and regional approach to combat the menace. It would be better if Manmohan Singh and Sheikh Hasina were to integrate their efforts with the ones initiated by Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani and Afghanistan President Karzai. It would also take the wind out of Pakistan’s sails and would have no defence left on withdrawal of its forces from the eastern border along India and putting them on the western tribal areas for a meaningful fight against the Taliban.

The Pakistani speakers were frank enough to admit the havoc the terrorists were creating in their country. One of them said that anyone leaving the house was not sure whether he would return alive. Islamabad needs to be retrieved. It does not mean that India will be less anxious in having Pakistan pursue its effort to book the perpetrators of 26/11. But it does mean that New Delhi’s frozen attitude would melt so that the two countries can meet across the table once again. Disappointment in Pakistan over the ‘no’ to talks should not make President Asif Zardari indulge in jingoism and say that they would wage a thousand-year war against India. He may want to bolster himself politically. But his rhetoric may make him more dependable on the army which has been the biggest factor in Pakistan.

It is strange that Islamabad has not yet understood how the system works at New Delhi. Otherwise, Pakistan would not have overreacted to the statement by chief of the army staff General Deepak Kapoor that India may have to prepare for war against China and Pakistan. However irresponsible the statement, it does not pose any threat to Pakistan. Defence Minister A.K. Anthony scoffed at Islamabad’s reaction.

General Kapoor is not General Pervez Kayani. The systems in the two countries are different. General Kapoor or the army has no say in India’s political affairs. He is due to retire after serving his tenure. The government will soon be naming his successor. Making a mountain out of a molehill gives the impression as if Pakistan is trying to score a point, however weak and farfetched. What all this boils down to is the unending mistrust. Until it is replaced by confidence, the two sides have to see that they do not present an exaggerated picture, indulge in accusations or imagine something which has no basis.

Sheikh Hasina’s visit and the Indo-Pak meet should make people in South Asia think what miracle can take place if all the countries were to pool their resources. They do not have to give up their separate identity or sovereignty. They have to only shed distrust and suspicion to build the region for the common good.

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