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Indo-Pak talks: Unrealistic to expect breakthrough
Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
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March 13, 2007 13:00 IST

"Every time they meet us they ask what will you give us," said a very senior official in the ministry of external affairs about Pakistani diplomats who participate in the composite dialogue process between India and Pakistan.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, who is in Islamabad, will probably face the same question again when he participates in the fourth round of the composite dialogue with his Pakistani counterpart Riaz Mohammed Khan.

The last time the two met was in November 2006 and since then, they have moved forward in micro-millimetres and millimetres, which is not bad news for the two countries with a huge historical baggage.

A senior Indian official, while briefing the press, said a lot has been done in the last four months; like Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee's visit to Islamabad to extend an invitation for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation meeting in New Delhi.

Now there is an understanding between the two nuclear powers on informing each other about nuclear accidents, and the final draft on the visa policy is ready. This area has been a favourite battleground for the sometimes-na�ve political boxing between the two countries since decades.

The issue of visa for diplomats is also being sorted out; concerning whether Indian diplomats will be allowed to visit Taxila, an ancient site and Sikh pilgrimage centre near Islamabad, and whether Pakistani diplomats in New Delhi will be allowed to move freely in Noida in Uttar Pradesh and Gurgaon in Haryana while holding a visa for New Delhi.

The Indian side alleged that Pakistan's first draft of the visa policy was stricter than what is currently practised. The second draft will be discussed today between Menon and Khan.

The dispute over Sir Creek, an area on the Kutch border with a potential of gas reserves will be taken up this time too. The survey has been completed and Menon will try hard to take the issue to finality.

Pakistan is desperately seeking Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Islamabad.

The invitation has been before Dr Singh since long. Dr Singh has said that unless some big "breakthrough" is reached on a substantial issue, he may not like to waste an opportunity.

Siachen is one such issue Pakistan may like to bargain for the PM's visit. A reliable source said the Siachen issue could have been settled to facilitate Dr Singh's visit to Pakistan, and in turn President Musharraf could have visited New Delhi in April to attend the SAARC summit.

But it seems time has run out for such high-profile events. 

India's former ambassador to Pakistan G Parthasarathy told, "I doubt, if in the present political climate, Dr  Manmohan Singh can agree to troop withdrawal from Siachen and implement his grandiose ideas for a 'Peace Park' there though differences can be narrowed down on the Sir Creek issue."

However, the entire exercise of the composite dialogue between the two countries hasn't lost political importance.

Pakistan expert B Raman believes, "There are no signs -- at least outwardly -- of disenchantment with the composite dialogue -- either in New Delhi or in Islamabad. The two countries give signs of coming to terms with the reality that no quick progress or major breakthrough is to be expected. The Indo-Pak dialogue on Kashmir is continuing in a manner similar to the Indo-Chinese dialogue on the border dispute."

As Pakistanis repeatedly ask 'what you are going to give us?', the Indian official informs that on practical grounds we will ask them "to let more people from both sides cross the Line of Control. We would like to follow up with more Confidence Building Measures."

The loaded response to this Indian approach came quickly on the eve of Menon's arrival in Islamabad.

Pakstan's Foreign Office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam said, 'It is now important that we now move from CBMs to dispute resolution. We believe an early resolution of the Kashmir issue will pave the way for durable peace in the region and bring about greater cooperation in South Asia.'

But then diplomatic progress between India and Pakistan is sometimes agonisingly slow and sometimes merely an illusion.

On the table between Menon and Khan, the issue of terrorism remains seriously prickly.

Currently, the issue is manifested in form of the joint mechanism on terrorism.

The idea was reportedly initiated by Menon himself when he was appointed foreign secretary, claims a source in the Prime Minister's Office.

The idea of the joint mechanism has invited criticism and questions.

Parthasarathy said, "I have always regarded the joint terror mechanism on terrorism as an ill-conceived and counter-productive proposal because it equates India, a victim of terrorism, with Pakistan, a perpetrator of terrorism that is today internationally recognised as the epicentre of global terrorism. This bilateral mechanism has led to Pakistan denying everything we put on the table and India, in turn, converting terrorism, which is an international issue, into a purely bilateral issue."

Menon's big challenge will be to make this newly-formed mechanism workable.

In the last meeting of this mechanism, which was led by Additional Secretary K C Singh on the Indian side, the only achievement was in the area of "prevention of future attacks", claims an MEA official.

Reportedly, Pakistan is not seriously interested in cooperation on the issue of Kashmiri militants or in helping India nab the accused in previous bomb blasts cases.

MEA spokesman Navtej Sarna said, "The essential idea behind it is to exchange information which leads to a mechanism which can jointly end terrorism. So that is the purpose of talking of prevention of violence and terrorist acts in the two countries by tightening the net."

However, a senior official who is well-versed with talks said India wants the end of any official support to terrorist elements. He pointed out that when victims of the Samjhauta Express blasts were taken to Lahore, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa's cadre were organising the logistics.

Also, an Indian official said Pakistan is not doing enough to expose the financing of terrorists outfits.

Raman claims that India should understand that Pakistan will not give up terrorism unless the Kashmir issue is resolved. Right now, they want to change the status quo.

"De jure, Pakistan sticks to the position that there cannot be normalisatoin of trade relations till the Kashmir issue is resolved, but de facto Musharraf has quietly been allowing trade to increase. The only jarring issue is terrorism. There has been no effort by Musharraf to control terrorism directed against India or Afghanistan," Raman added.

The recent statements from various leaders including Musharraf suggest that a large section of Pakistanis have realised that Pakistan cannot annex Kashmir from India either through terrorism or war.

At the same time, Pakistan wants a change in the status quo in some manner so that Musharraf can project to his people that the policies followed by the army and the Inter Services Intelligence did not fail and they were able to change the status quo.

"Initially, Musharraf was hinting that a change of status quo could be in the form of India retaining Jammu and Ladakh and handing over the Valley to Pakistan. When our prime minister clearly said that any solution should not involve change of borders or any territorial change, Musharraf is now talking of joint management of J&K, which would mean that India recognise that Pakistan has a locus standi in the Valley," Raman said.

Menon's job on Tuesday and Wednesday is to hold on to what has been achieved so far and to give the other side the confidence that things are moving slowly, steadily and in the right direction.

In view of continuing distrust on both sides over the serious issue of terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir and security, Menon will not have the luxury to put to test creative diplomatic ideas.

Former ambassador M K Bhadrakumar said, "Keeping a deeply troubled relationship in a state of animation is never going to be easy. For a variety of objective reasons both in and outside India, a breakthrough in the composite dialogue seems unrealistic to expect at this point."

"But, having said that," he added, "we have reason to be pleased with the progression of the dialogue thus far. The diplomatic challenge right ahead will be to see that there is no erosion, which is always a lingering danger when creative approaches must remain on hold."

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