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In Indo-Pak relations, peace is less a bullet-ridden dove than a lacerated phoenix that rises periodically out of the ashes of experience.

Its latest emergence has come in the form of a speech given by the COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa at the Islamabad Security Dialogue on 18 March. If one can surmount the laboured militarese - ‘exogenous factors of the global and regional environment and inner layers being the endogenous factors of internal peace, stability and developmental orientation’ - it is a speech that deserves mature attention. He regretted that ‘despite the tremendous human and resource potential, the unsettled disputes are dragging this region back to the swamp of poverty and underdevelopment.It is saddening to know that even today it is among the least integrated regions of the world in terms of trade, infrastructure, water & energy cooperation.’

He added with unquestionable sincerity: ‘Let me say profoundly that we are ready to improve our environment by resolving all our outstanding issues with our neighbours through dialogue in a dignified and peaceful manner.’ It revealed a pragmatism for which one predecessor lost his job and many prime ministers lost theirs.

To some observers, significance lay in the ensuing silence of organs of the government constitutionally charged with the conduct of international relations - the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister.

Before that speech, on 26 February, the DGMOs of India and Pakistan announced a ceasefire, and since then, the Indian prime minister Modi responded on 23 March - our Pakistan Day - with a standardised greeting prepared by a dutiful MEA underling. At present, overdue discussions are taking place in New Delhi on implementation (and violations) of the Indus Waters Treaty.

All these cumulative initiatives have put analysts into a tizzy. Should they interpret these steps as heralds of a spring thaw? History cautions otherwise. Indo-Pak relations are like Canadian winters - each thaw exposes carcasses of animals that perished under earlier snow-falls.

Step back from Wagah border and you will realise that nothing has changed. Visas are as extinct as dinosaurs. Indian publications are equated with pornography and banned on local internet platforms. Books and periodicals rot like fresh vegetables at the border. Ignorant are those who only their country know.

PM Imran Khan feels he has made enough overtures to his Indian counterpart. He could consider, however, doing something more dramatic, such as a visit to India - unsolicited, uninvited, yet beyond refusal. Fifty years ago, Henry Kissinger made such a seminal breakthrough in Sino-US relations when he visited Beijing in July 1971. In February 1987, General Ziaul Haq caught PM Rajiv Gandhi off-guard when he flew to New Delhi, ostensibly to watch the cricket test match between Pakistan and India being played at Jaipur. And in December 2015, PM Modi dropped in ‘unexpectedly’ at Lahore to meet PM Nawaz Sharif. Perhaps that may be the reason why PM Imran Khan is hesitant to meet PM Modi. In her recent book The Fragrance of Tears: My Friendship with Benazir Bhutto, Victoria Schofield narrates why Asif Zardari encouraged her to meet the motherless Bhutto-Zardari children: ‘They smell her on you.’ Imran Khan still smells Nawaz Sharif on Narendra Modi.

Prejudice and diplomacy make uneasy bedfellows. What would we lose from such a unilateral gesture by our prime minister? Face? We have few hypocrisies left to lose. Would it damage prospects for peace?

Had our Foreign Office been adept at reading Tarot cards, it would have realised that it holds the Ten of Swords. Interpreted, it means nothing could be worse. Only improvement can be expected.

Consider the international realities that surround us. In the US, president Biden has other priorities - the safe management of the Covid-19 crisis, compounded by firefighting the incendiary relationship with China. China sees us less as an iron brother and more as an importuning poor cousin, begging constantly for handouts - whether of billion dollar deposits or donations of anti-Covid-19 vaccines. Putin might be inclined to consider a trip to Islamabad - if he could forget the abrupt last-minute cancellation of his visit scheduled for October 2012. Afghanistan is a bomb crater with the US-led coalition forces bunkered there in a never-ending peace mission. Iran is a friend in need; its needs in a siege of sanctions are more biting than ours. Saudi Arabia and the UAE? They are too busy feeding the insatiable American armaments industry. We probably have more friends in South America than in our own continent.

A non-violent gesture is needed to convert India from a militant enemy into an albeit unfriendly neighbour. The Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow once wrote: "I am a phoenix who runs after arsonists." Are Pakistan and India doomed to remain each other’s arsonists?



[DAWN, 1 April 2021]

01 April 2021
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