Saturday, July 11, 2015

Daily Times Editorial July 12, 2015

Ufa summit On the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Ufa, Russia, Prime Ministers (PMs) Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi of Pakistan and India respectively have attempted to overcome recent frictions between the two south Asian neighbours and move forward to normalise if not improve ties by addressing all outstanding issues between them, such as Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, etc, to ensure lasting peace. In the light of the heavy exchange of firing on the Line of Control and the Working Boundary, both sides agreed the Directors General of the Indian Border Security Force and Pakistani Rangers should have an early meeting to use the set procedure agreed to by both sides for dealing with such flareups. The two PMs also agreed to release each other’s hapless fishermen who are arrested for straying within the other side’s waters in the absence of any indicators of where the maritime boundary lies within 15 days of their arrest. This would be a marked improvement on the situation that has obtained for many years, in which these poor people are detained in each country’s prisons for years on end before, if they are lucky, being eventually released. In the past, these releases have been tied to the state of relations between the two countries, with bad times yielding few if any releases and relative improvement in ties opening the prison gates for these unfortunate souls to return home. If the new arrangement is institutionalised, these long suffering fishermen’s fate will no longer be dependent on the state of relations between Islamabad and New Delhi but be dealt with under a normal protocol with quick results. The PMs also agreed to evolve a mechanism to promote religious tourism. While the idea is unexceptionable and perhaps even encouraging if handled well, the real improvement would be a softening of the often-draconian restrictions on citizens of each country visiting the other. Naturally, such openings depend crucially on the atmosphere prevailing between the two countries, but surely ways and means could be explored for a liberal visa regime, an idea oft mooted but whose time does not seem to have come just yet. Interestingly, it is a reflection of the difficulties faced by both Pakistan and India when attempting to move forward in their relations that domestic critics can and often are found in abundance. These are usually the political opposition in each country. For example, the PPP in Pakistan has been carping on about the lack of substance in the joint statements emanating from the interactions of the two PMs, while in India, not just the opposition Congress Party, but even the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s ally Shiv Sena see little merit in the interaction and perhaps much to decry. Unfortunately, while the Shiv Sena may be driven by its Hindutva narrowness, both the Congress in India and the PPP in Pakistan seem to be playing politics with serious matters. The criticism by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf regarding no mention of Kashmir in the joint statement can be seen with hindsight as premature and factually incorrect. The Kashmir issue should not be turned into a political football for mere point scoring. It is a serious, long standing, intractable problem that requires statesmanship and wisdom to resolve, not knee jerk and predictable reactions. Besides, the meeting on the sidelines of the SCO summit could hardly be expected to yield any ‘breakthrough’. The breakthrough, if there is any, is in the very fact that the two sides have eschewed the fiery rhetoric of the recent past against each other and reverted to the normal diplomatic tone and language for conducting serious business on difficult issues. Let us not be excessively critical of our leaders in Islamabad or New Delhi for purely expedient political reasons but rise above the relatively mundane considerations of domestic politics to see beyond the horizon of tensions and sabre rattling to the peaceful tomorrow that beckons just beyond sight. One undeniable positive gleaned from the SCO summit is the grant of membership to both Pakistan and India. The hope is that this will facilitate the two countries in bettering their mutual relations. SCO stretches over 30 million square kilometres, i.e. three-fifths of the Eurasian land mass, with a population of 1.5 billion souls. Imagine if this vast sea of territory and humanity were to find the path to mutual cooperation, peace, security and development that lie at the heart of the SCO charter, what a transformation that would wring in the greater Eurasian theatre as well as the world. Interactions on the margins of the summit with President Xi of China, Putin of Russia and Ghani of Afghanistan were simply cream on top. Given these positives to take home, we can ignore the 'bad’ cop role played on the day by Dar in parliament vis-à-vis India. Perhaps his aides forgot to inform him of what his PM had just accomplished with Modi in Ufa.

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