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The Case For An Indo-Pak Backchannel

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As indicated by the improved situation on the Line of Control, India-Pakistan relations are limping back to normalcy but stability still remains far away.

Going by former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's dictum on the impossibility of changing neighbours, India's growth and Pakistan's stability are both impossible without trust, normalcy and cooperation between the two. To keep the interaction between New Delhi and Islamabad uninterrupted, it serves the interests of both to have official dialogue backed up by an institutional and creative backchannel framework.

Latest Escalation

Tension on the Line of Control erupted after the beheading of an Indian soldier in the first week of January. The security discourse overtook the political discourse, when the Army Chief Gen Bikram Singh, in an off-the-cuff remark, drove home a basic fact often ignored in context of India-Pakistan peace process. He said, 'the level of normalcy between India and Pakistan has to be seen in relation to the situation on the Line of Control.'

The LoC is less than 25 percent of the entire boundary of 2064 miles dividing the two countries, but the fact that it runs through Jammu and Kashmir assumes centrality to any model of stability India and Pakistan work on. With a history of diplomatic, political and security ups and downs behind them, it was a Line of Control skirmish that recently brought the South-Asian giants once again back to the brink. Sadly, it was at a time when they looked heavily invested in repairing their relations.

In the immediate fallout, the foreign offices in New Delhi and Islamabad called the respective envoys to issue stern demarches. Pakistani hockey players playing for the Indian team were sent back from Mumbai in the middle of a pre-game trial session. The visit to India by two leading Pakistani theatre groups was called off.

The biggest fallout was on the Line of Control itself. Emerging since 2005 as a 'Line of Cooperation and Peace' between India and Pakistan, the LoC suddenly returned to its traditional symbolism of 'Line of Conflict.' Gates were shut on Cross-LoC travel and trade, the biggest ever confidence building measure between India and Pakistan in Kashmir. India put on hold full operationalisation of a new visa regime. The leader of Opposition in the Parliament asked for 'ten heads of Pakistani soldiers' to avenge the beheading.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh summed up the political sentiment on January 14 when he said, "after this barbaric act, there can't be business as usual with Pakistan.' The much awaited MFN and new trade regime, seen as an alternative route to sustainable stability between the two countries, has fallen into state of uncertainty.

All this happened barely two weeks after India and Pakistan played cricket together in New Delhi, the first bilateral series in five years, signalling the best of relations. Those who lack the strategic depth as that of Gen Bikram Singh think of the bilateral cricket series as a barometer of India-Pakistan normalcy. It was at the LoC - one breach, the proverbial one gunshot and then the cyclic retaliations - where the normalcy castle collapsed.

De-escalation

The government of Pakistan Peoples' Party, which has been risking its political fortunes to the mighty army and unbridled jihadists in repairing relations with India post-26/11 Mumbai terror raids, found itself in a precarious situation after the LoC incident.

Unfortunately, its initial response - denial - was pretty much typical of the traditional order. Then, sounding innocent, Islamabad returned with the offer of a United Nations-led probe, outrightly rejected by New Delhi as India has not been reporting to UNMOGIP since 1972. Analysts say credit goes to the political sagacity of the top political leadership in India and Pakistan in exercising restraint and realising the futility of further escalation and the importance of keeping the channels of dialogue open.

The DGMOs took to the hotline, to make a commitment to respecting the ceasefire. Since then, there has not been any further violation of the 2003 truce on the LoC. Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar's offer for a Minister-level dialogue with India soothed the political climate. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid described Khar's statement as 'positive' and reiterated that the "peace process is not going to be undermined by these incidents."

Sustaining the truce

Two weeks after the latest formal signs of normalcy signalled by New Delhi and Islamabad, a leading national newspaper in India claimed that it was an Indian friend of President Zardari who mediated for the recent peace. Yje newspaper has kept the friend's identity secret for obvious reasons - in the Indo-Pak context when nationalist passions are high, anyone talking for peace is seen as a 'friend of the enemy.' This is common in both countries but much nore profound in India as attacks whether on the LoC or in the heartlands occur in the east of the Radcliffe line.

It might sound unpleasant to the self-designated national interest community in both countries, but India's growth and Pakistan's stability are impossible without trust, normalcy and cooperation between the two. India and Pakistan have a bitter history of collapsing peace processes after years of political and diplomatic hard work. It has taken a lot for the UPA government in India and PPP government in Pakistan after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, to put relations back on track.

The element of surprise which has often jeopardised the bilateral dialogue is difficult to rule out for the future. What is therefore important for both countries, is to have in place a permanent back channel team and manage the local situations locally and not magnify those to the national level.

The worst might still happen. As one of India's most untiring peaceniks, Mani Shanker Aiyar says, "in order to jump larger distance sometimes you have to move a little backwards."

Uninterrupted, institutional and multilayered dialogue is the only option before India and Pakistan. As the situation on the Line of Control, the barometer of normalcy, continues to be fragile, the framework of 'anonymous friends' should go beyond advocacy of strategic patience to stress on and ensure the policy of 'no first breach.'

It is a breach after every hard achieved concord that takes us many steps back. The anonymous friends - who may be former diplomats or even former military Generals or politicos like Aiyar - could be packed into a back channel of communication not only between the two governments but also a set of officials in Foreign and Home departments.

Zafar Choudhary is a senior journalist and Asia Society Fellow on the India-Pakistan Young Leaders Forum. He can be reached at zafarchoudhary@gmail.com Read more stories by Zafar Choudhary.

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