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'Atmospherics are critical'

By Tara Shankar Sahay
May 15, 2003 16:31 IST
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She was the only one of the 12 member Pakistani delegation of parliamentary peaceniks to talk about the Kashmir issue when the train from Amritsar arrived at New Delhi station. Sherry Rahman of the Pakistan People's Party not only had attitude, but loads of savvy as she gave her viewpoint on the bone of contention between India and Pakistan, as also other issues, in a brief interview with Tara Shankar Sahay. Excerpts:

The hawks and doves in both India and Pakistan are pushing their respective points of view on Kashmir. How does one reach confluence?

The two countries must reach a meeting point. We [the Pakistani peace delegation] have come here to try and reduce tension and initiate a vital people-to-people dialogue. I think after 17 months of tension on the border, it is critical to first set the stage for reaching the point you are talking about, it is a very useful and important point to discuss. But we have to move step by step. Up till now, we have had confrontation on the border. Right now, some of our forces have withdrawn from the border and that is a good step. The next step should be taken by civilians like us and we are attempting to create a better atmosphere. Atmospherics are critical to the resumption of any successful, meaningful dialogue.

What is your solution on Kashmir?

Personally, I think the people of Kashmir must have their right to self-determination and say in chalking out their destiny. All these years of violence and misery for what? It has not helped Kashmiris, but on the contrary increased their woes manifold. It has not helped India and Pakistan. So dialogue is the only way out for a peaceful solution of the Kashmir problem. And that is our endeavour. Kashmir is also India's core issue, but New Delhi is concerned primarily with cross-border terrorism, which it feels has worsened relations between the two countries. That's why we say let's talk, keep the dialogue going. The breakdown of talks creates mutual suspicion and leads to our relations being frozen. To bring about a thaw, you have to talk.

Do you think the present situation is conducive to the holding of a dialogue between the two countries?

Our aim should be to proceed cautiously so that the dialogue is sustainable, and not push everything at one go. We have 55 years of conflict to resolve. So I think the first step should be of confidence-building and then get to conflict resolution. We are looking for a composite dialogue and I think we can work with both baskets at the same time.

What has been your impression since you arrived here?

My impression is actually very favourable as far as civilian contact is concerned. We had very amicable and cordial talks with Indian parliamentarians, we have been received very warmly by certain sections of the population, specifically by the Indo-Pak Forum people on this side.

What about any shortcomings you may have noticed?

There has been a very clear absence of meeting points or opportunities with members of the Bharatiya Janata Party. That may be their considered response to meeting with parliamentarians from Pakistan. I am sorry that we could not exchange views, but the attempt was certainly made from our side. I hope in future there will be a situation where they [the BJP] feel they are able to at least begin a conversation.

The BJP has disappointed you?

As I said, starting a dialogue is essential. We are still at that stage where members of the BJP don't feel that they are able to even start a dialogue till everything [outstanding issues between India and Pakistan] are settled. My approach would be that it is always best to start a dialogue and then hope to settle everything.

Did your delegation get President Pervez Musharraf's blessings before leaving for India?

I don't know about General Musharraf, but we have an elected  prime minister whose blessings are equally important. I am from the opposition party, I certainly carried [former Pakistan prime minister] Benazir Bhutto's blessings and greetings to  certainly Congress people here and other interlocutors who were able to meet us. Our foreign policy establishment met us, but what we talked about was off the record, as it is with most of your side.

What do you feel about the American aim of denuclearising South Asia?

I don't think we should be considering what the Americans are proposing [as a roadmap for peace in the subcontinent], but the concept of denuclearisation of South Asia is certainly a positive one. It should be looked at in a more meaningful manner. We are two nuclear states that are not helping each other. We have not been able to prevent a conventional war, which is supposed to be deterred [by nuclear weapons]. Nuclear weapons are diverting valuable resources from our Third World countries. We have extreme deprivation in both countries and nuclear weapons are not going to help us in any way. If we as a region specifically using the SAARC template can de-weaponise and de-escalate tension and reduce arms on both sides, it would be a very positive sign. We should have the impulse and confidence to initiate such bilateral negotiation and not [have to be pushed by] the Americans.

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Tara Shankar Sahay