The News International, July 25, 2009

by Praful Bidwai (The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi)

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh surprised many of his own advisers and supporters by issuing a joint statement at Sharm-al-Shaikh in Egypt with his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani, which pledged to resume the bilateral dialogue process. It was widely expected that the dialogue, suspended after last November's ghastly Mumbai terrorist attacks, would be re-started only after Pakistan showed a credible commitment and took visible action to bring their perpetrators to justice and decisively fight terrorism directed at India from its soil.

Admittedly, the signs of this happening are still tentative -although Pakistan's 36-page dossier given to India names Lashkar-e-Taiba's Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakshvi as the attacks' mastermind and admits that Ajmal Amir Kasab and other attackers were Pakistani nationals. Islamabad has now brought the case to the prosecution stage. Its charge-sheet in the case contains important evidence gathered domestically, which adds to that provided by India. How the prosecution proceeds, and whether the culprits are punished, is an open question.

So was Singh right to have convinced himself that Pakistan means business now and therefore the stalled dialogue should resume, albeit gradually, at the foreign secretary level? Was the joint statement justified in saying: "Action on terrorism should not be linked to the composite dialogue process and these should not be bracketed"? Was he right to stress that he hadn't diluted India's stand demanding action against terrorism?

In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party and hawkish former diplomats and soldiers have pounced on the "delinking" formulation and accused Singh of "surrender", capitulation to external pressure, and worse. Even the ruling Congress has distanced itself from the phrase. LK Advani has charged Singh with breaching the national consensus against talks with Islamabad unless it acts against jehadi groups. Worse, the statement's reference to Balochistan has been attacked as signifying India's admission that it has clandestinely fomented trouble there.

These criticisms are largely misdirected and based on the misperception that the composite dialogue has already been resumed and will continue full tilt no matter what. In fact, what Singh and Gilani agreed to was limited and laced with caution. As Singh told parliament, and Foreign Secretary Menon clarified, the talks won't restart until Pakistan shows "real progress" in anti-terrorist actions. The "delinking" formulation is inelegant, awkward and ambiguous. It can be interpreted by either side to suit domestic exigencies. Pakistan can claim it has succeeded in resuming the dialogue although the case against LeT operatives isn't completed. India can claim that it has extracted an assurance from Pakistan that it would act firmly against terrorism -as any minimally civilised country should do -irrespective of what happens in the dialogue.

In truth, the two processes -anti-terrorism action and dialogue--have their independent logic and dynamics. They will converge as they gather momentum at their own respective pace. That's what genuine, positive engagement leading to reconciliation is all about. Both sides must recognise and respect this. Neither should act unilaterally. For instance, Pakistan shouldn't stop acting against jehadi groups if, say, talks on Sir Creek or Siachen fail. The two governments must hold firm and persevere with the dialogue. Singh shouldn't be on the defensive about having made a leap of faith by agreeing to re-start the process. Atal Behari Vajpyee did exactly that -in 1999 and in 2004, when he launched the peace process with Gen Pervez Musharraf.

There are two differences, though. The 2004 dialogue began before Pakistan took credible steps to rein in or crack down upon anti-India jehadi groups. Today, it's being resumed after Pakistan has taken more effective action against them than at any time in the last quarter-century. The 2004 launch took place on the basis of Musharraf's verbal assurance that Pakistan would its utmost to prevent its territory from being used to attack India. Vajpayee, who had only a few months earlier ruled out talks, decided to take him seriously. The results aren't perfect. But India and Pakistan are unarguably better off after the dialogue. They even made significant progress on Kashmir in their "back-channel" discussions.

Today's context is in many ways better. Islamabad has admitted, frankly and categorically, that Pakistani nationals and groups planned and executed the Mumbai attacks. This is a departure from the long-practised strategy of "plausible deniability". This is happening when the Pakistan Army is fighting the Al-Qaeda-Taliban at its western border in alliance with and under the watch of the US-led International Security Assistance Force. Pakistan is under domestic and international pressure to erase the stigma of being a state that nurtured terrorism.

Pakistan is a divided, heterogeneous entity. Its civilian government has seriously signalled that it wants better relations with India. It has so far succeeded in keeping the hawks in check and pushed a moderate agenda in alliance with political and civil society forces genuinely opposed to violent extremism. Yet, the hawks and India-baiters in the ISI and other agencies haven't been marginalised. That can only happen when the moderates get more support.

It's in India's own interest to stop treating Pakistan as a homogenous entity and to build a strategic alliance with the moderate forces which combine an anti-extremist, anti-military outlook with a pro-democratisation agenda. It would be unwise to leave such alliance-building to governments alone. India and Pakistan must open up the process to scholars, artists, writers, cultural activists and civil society groups by facilitating their movement across the borders. Their interaction can produce dramatic results.

India should also do all it can to allay fears over its activities in Balochistan, -although there's no moral-political parity between India's suspect behaviour in Balochistan and Pakistan's own long-standing and large-scale support to violent separatism in Kashmir. Singh's hysterical critics fail to understand any of this. Indeed, they don't even pause to ask why Pakistan's moderates are so keen to resume a dialogue with India and remain invested in that agenda. Hawks in both countries have a single refrain: Pakistan and India are destined to be enemies given the history of three-and-a-half wars, the military's dominance in Pakistan, and the festering of numerous disputes.

This is a totally a-historical judgement. It erases or trivialises many instances of reconciliation and fruitful friendship developing between long-standing rivals. Take Germany and France, which were in a centuries-long state of intermittent war, in which they sacrificed millions of their people. Yet, after the Second World War, they reached reconciliation and laid the foundations of the Common Market, which later grew into the European Community and today's 27-member European Union.

The two European rivals achieved this through persistent, hard negotiations, which rejected pessimism, confronted issues head-on, and adopted a hard-nosed but positive approach. The process established a relationship called co-bonding in international relations theory.

Put simply, co-bonding involves former adversaries tying each other down through cooperative agreements, mutual interaction, and greater exposure of their citizens and officials to each other's cultures -so that there is no backsliding into mutual suspicion and rivalry. It's as if two wrestlers who balance each other had gradually moved from a posture exerting unbearable pressure to a friendly embrace. Co-bonding is precisely what India and Pakistan need. But for that to happen, both governments will have to try hard, earnestly, in good faith, not once but repeatedly. They have made a tentative but welcome beginning. -end-