June 11, 2001


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Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

Looking for peace on the Arabian Sea

More than 50 years ago, two nations were wrought out of the Indian subcontinent after nearly 200 years of colonial rule. With their destinies in their own hands, the impoverished people of the area looked forward to peace, progress and prosperity. Jawaharlal Nehru talked of a tryst with destiny. Alas, things did not turn out exactly as people had hoped.

There is or has been little peace between the countries during the last half-century. Practically from the date of Independence both parties have become bitter enemies, fighting three wars along the way.

As far as prosperity is concerned, both India and Pakistan languish every year in the bottom one-third of the UNDP's annual quality of life index. India still has about 400 million people below the poverty line and Pakistan a literacy rate of about 50 per cent. Both countries spend an enormous amount on defence year after year -- India nearly Rs 60,000 crore, Pakistan nearly 7 per cent of its GDP.

The nineties saw an escalation of bitterness and animosity between the countries as a result of cross-border terrorism, militancy in the state of Jammu & Kashmir and the ill-conceived clash in Kargil. The decade also saw the overthrow of the elected government in Pakistan.

For the next two years, matters deteriorated and relations sank to a new low. Both countries refused to even talk to each other while flexing their military muscle. Both raised their nuclear thresholds by exploding nuclear devices and demonstrating their ability to deliver nuclear weapons. It might have got them access to an exclusive club, but has certainly not helped to bring them any closer. For a while it looked as if we were doomed to a hundred years of no-peace-no-war in the 21st century.

Now at last there are some hopes of an improvement in the current situation. The initiative taken by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in inviting the leader of Pakistan and General Pervez Musharraf's quick and generous response are the first signs that there may be some hope in the future.

It has belatedly dawned on India's decision-makers that rhetoric and jingoism may be good for mass consumption and may even get you elected to office, but ultimately gets you nowhere near peace. And peace is what is most essential if both India and Pakistan want any improvement in their economies and, ultimately, the lot of their people.

The last 10 years have seen gradual erosion of whatever little goodwill existed between our nations. No new bridges were built and existing ones were destroyed. Pakistan refuses to have Indian cultural artistes perform in that country. India refuses permission for its cricket team to play Pakistan. In the present environment one cannot help but expect very little from the talks between the two leaders in July.

Yet there are many avenues still open, even in this environment, where there is ample scope for co-operation. Maritime co-operation is one such.

Sailing in a common environment and facing the cruel sea for their livelihood, seamen all over the world have a common brotherhood. Examples exist where mariners from nations who were bitter enemies have forged bonds of friendship.

India and Pakistan face common problems at sea. Piracy and smuggling are, for example, equally worrisome problems for both countries. Sea routes provide easy access for the smuggling of narcotics, small arms and explosives and both are equally concerned about this. A co-operative approach is likely to yield far better results in checking this menace.

Pollution is another area where both countries can co-operate to mutual advantage. The sea is an impartial medium, not selective about which area it will pollute. The meagre resources of each country prevent it from mounting a major assault on polluted areas, but pooling their resources and making a joint effort to keep the shores of the Arabian Sea free from pollution can result in immense benefit to both countries.

One particular community stands to benefit most if India and Pakistan can come to some form of maritime understanding. These are the poor fishermen of the two countries. Even after 50 years, India and Pakistan have failed to demarcate the maritime boundary between them. The problem ostensibly is due to a dispute over the exact boundary at Sir Creek (a small strip of water along the Rann of Kutch in India and Sind in Pakistan). This highly solvable dispute has been kept simmering for many years.

The waters off Kutch have been traditional fishing grounds for fishermen of both countries for over a thousand years. Fish know no international boundary and can find habitation either this side or that of the international boundary. And fishermen will go where the fish are.

There was little problem in these waters for the first 30 years of Independence. Shortage of fish is also not a problem. The total catch is less than 30 per cent of the available fish.

But in 1978, India decided to establish a Coast Guard and Pakistan followed suit with a Maritime Security Agency. Both bodies are keen to justify their existence. So ever so often the Coast Guard captures some 50 Pakistani fishing vessels along with their catch and locks up the fishermen. Within a few days the MSA gets hold of an equal number of Indian vessels and does the same to the fishermen.

The hapless fishermen languish in jail for years and no one gives a damn about them except their poor families. After a year or two in jail, they are released in a grand show of clemency. This farce, which can easily be terminated, goes on year after year.

Both the Coast Guard and the MSA say the problem can easily be solved if the matter is left to them. But the cases of fishermen are referred to the respective foreign ministries and the fishermen become pawns in the game of one-upmanship between both countries.

Any maritime agreement, which both nations can forge, which may alleviate the misery of these innocent people, could be the first step towards a multilateral agreement on maritime co-operation.

But given our present environment of mistrust and suspicion, is any maritime co-operation possible? Here, history is of considerable help. Both the United States and the USSR were bitter enemies at the height of the Cold War when the first such agreement between the two countries was signed in 1972.

Known famously as the Incidents at Sea Agreement, INCSEA has stood the test of time. The agreement was signed to stop incidents, collisions and close encounters between warships of the two countries and has now become the model for such agreements.

Many such agreements exist today between countries that were enemies only a few years ago. Argentina and Chile, which nearly fought a war at one time, signed a maritime agreement three years ago. Israel and Jordan, bitter enemies otherwise, carried out joint exercises to control maritime pollution in their harbours.

Fortunately, both India and Pakistan have sensible mariners in decision-making positions who are keen to have such agreements. Admiral Fasih Bokhari, Pakistan's naval chief from 1997 to 1999, was a great proponent of maritime co-operation with India and believed that it would benefit both countries. Admirals Vishnu Bhagwat and Sushil Kumar have also been keen to bring about greater co-operation between the two navies.

The ingredients are all there. It now requires only a final push to see some sort of preliminary maritime co-operation agreement, which may bring an era of peace and prosperity at sea between the two counties.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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