PERIODS of slight progress punctuated by nerve-shredding crises. That, more or less, describes dealings between South Asia’s two nuclear-armed and mutually suspicious powers. Relations between India and Pakistan have inched forward as onerous visa or trade rules are eased. Now Pakistan has a new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who is outspoken about the need for peace. Even Pakistan’s army chief suggests it is possible to overplay the threat from the giant next door.
But no sooner were hopes of reconciliation kindled than violence erupted. Killings on August 6th in Poonch along the “line of control”, the disputed high-altitude border in Jammu and Kashmir, threaten a new chill in relations (see article). India says Pakistani forces laid an ambush in which five soldiers were killed, violating a decade-old ceasefire. Gunfire and mortars, plus bitter accusations, have flown since. On August 13th Pakistan’s parliament blamed India for the violence; a day later India’s parliament snarled back.
In India the jingoistic media have fanned outrage. Some 42 soldiers have already died in Kashmir this year, compared with 17 in 2012. Talking to Pakistan, the nationalists say, would amount to appeasement. A group of self-styled “experts” has petitioned the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to scrap a planned meeting with Mr Sharif in New York next month.
That would be a mistake. Renewed violence only makes it more urgent for the leaders to talk and to sideline extremists. Although his advisers have suggested that now is not the moment to draw closer to India, Mr Sharif should spend political capital on the “new beginning” that he says he wants with his neighbour. After May’s election victory, he has the mandate.
India’s prime minister also believes in talking, not fighting. Mr Singh was born in what became Pakistan after India’s bloody partition in 1947; he wants to leave office having eased the hatred between the estranged brothers. After three wars, spectacular terrorism and decades of wasteful military spending, both sides would gain. India’s broad strategic ambitions also demand peace. It wants to do more business with Central Asia, and to match China’s influence in the region. Both are good reasons for better relations with its western neighbour.
Sadly, militants tend to meet the prospect of talks with violence. Suicide-attackers with links to Pakistan may have been behind the bloody assault on India’s consulate in the Afghan city of Jalalabad on August 3rd. Some Indians say Pakistani infiltrators stirred up recent protests in Kashmir—though Muslims there have no lack of grievances against the authorities. Yet leaders with an eye on the long term must hold the line. A meeting in September is an essential step to building trust.
No more excuses
Mr Singh should reach out first, as leader of the bigger and more confident power. As a start, he can offer to pipe gas or refined oil over the border, or to extend the Indian electricity grid to his energy-starved neighbour. Boosting trade by promoting investment, scrapping non-tariff trade barriers and ending the harassment of Pakistani visitors makes sense. Restating that India has no grand designs in Afghanistan is cost-free, too.
Mr Sharif has the bigger challenge, yet he has no excuse for delays in normalising trade ties. Crucially, he must also overcome his reluctance to confront dangerous Islamist groups at home, notably Lashkar-e-Taiba, which routinely threaten India. Hafiz Saeed, a militant leader, lives freely in Pakistan despite being named by both India and America as being behind the bloody attacks in Mumbai in 2008 that killed over 170 people. If he rejects such militants and meets Mr Singh, Mr Sharif will be on the way to becoming a peacemaker.
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