India-Pakistan ties: Where is Punjab’s voice?
Recently, there have been a number of analysts, not necessarily ‘peaceniks’ (which has become a negative term in recent years) who have unequivocally pitched for improvement of ties between India and Pakistan. It is surprising to see, that the political class of the state of Punjab (India), which has borne the brunt of strained ties with Pakistan is a mute spectator., Neither the ruling party in the state, the Indian National Congress (INC), nor the opposition parties -- Shiromani Akali Dal(SAD) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have articulated their views on bilateral linkages with Pakistan.
At the national level, some important steps have been taken to bring down tensions – India sent a representative to the groundbreaking ceremony of the Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India pipeline (TAPI). Only recently, both countries have sought to address, through talks, problems faced by diplomats stationed in both countries.
A press release of the Ministry of External Affairs stated:
‘India and Pakistan have mutually agreed to resolve matters related to the treatment of diplomats and diplomatic premises, in line with the 1992 "Code of Conduct for the treatment of diplomatic/consular personnel in India and Pakistan’
Significantly, both New Delhi and Islamabad have also agreed on some important humanitarian measures pertaining to prisoners lodged in jails in both countries. Pakistan gave its consent, last month, to the Indian proposal of release of prisoners over the age of 70, permission of medical experts from both countries to examine mentally-challenged prisoners for their repatriation, and revival of a Joint Judicial Committee mechanism which has been defunct for nearly 5 years. Pakistan had in fact proposed that the release of prisoners could be lowered to 60 years.
While political outfits in Punjab have refrained from commenting on the dire need for engagement between both countries, PDP (People’s Democratic Party) Chief and Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti has been urging the center to revive dialogue with Pakistan – much to the chagrin of certain sections of the BJP – an ally of the PDP.
Other regional parties
It is not just the PDP, but even other regional parties like the AIADMK and DMK (Tamil Nadu) and the TMC (West Bengal) which have raised their concerns, regarding issues affecting their respective states, on foreign policy issues (related to Sri Lanka and West Bengal). While their moves may have been dubbed as ‘obstructionist’ and ‘detrimental’ to the national interest, these regional parties were effective in articulating their point of view and leveraged their political relevance.
In contrast, if one were to look at the political outfits of Punjab, they have not really sought to make their voice heard. While Punjab CM, Captain Amarinder Singh did raise the issue of selling surplus power to Pakistan during his meeting with PM Narendra Modi in April 2017, heightened tensions between both countries have ensured that this proposal which makes perfect sense, (and had been recommended by a study carried out by IIM-Ahmedabad) has been dumped for the time being.
It is encouraging to see the recent thaw between both countries and the statement of Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Ajay Bisaria who spoke about the potential of bilateral trade, is significant. Speaking to the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Bisaria said:
‘We should not talk about negative and positive lists rather we should work on the windows of opportunities. At present, over $5 billion trade is being done through third country but after removal of non-tariff barriers, liberalisation of visa and normalisation of mutual relations, the two-way trade could touch a high $30 billion’
Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry has close linkages with the Punjab, Haryana Delhi (PHD) Chamber of Commerce and MOU’s were signed with a similar intent during the visits of Captain Amarinder Singh (in his previous tenure) as well as Former Deputy Chief Minister, Sukhbir Singh Badal (2012). Chambers of Commerce, to their credit, on both sides have tried to ensure, even in the midst of ties hitting rock bottom, that the dialogue between members of the business community remains intact. The Punjab International Trade Expo (PITEX) held in Amritsar is one platform where such interactions take place, though logistical issues like visas act as a major impediment and in the 2017 edition, traders could not make it to the event due to bilateral tensions.
The political leadership of Punjab needs to look at ties with Pakistan, not just in the context of bilateral relations, but the ever changing geo-political complexities and increasing influence of China. While today, it may seem far-fetched and outlandish, if ties were to improve with Pakistan and China the possibility of India finding common ground with both countries and even joining CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor). Sudheendra Kulkarni in an article ‘Its time to re-imagine South Asia: On India-China-Pakistan Cooperation’ for The Hindu asks a pertinent question:
‘Will it help or hurt India if it joins this renamed initiative as an equal partner? Will it not connect Lahore and Amritsar (also Delhi and the rest of India), the two sides of Kashmir (which all Kashmir-based political parties want), Sindh and southern Punjab with Gujarat and Rajasthan, and Karachi with Mumbai’
In February 2015, then Chinese Ambassador to India, Le Yucheng had also spoken about such a possibility -- while talking to members of theConfederation of International Chambers of Commerce and Industry (CICCI) in Amritsar. Such a possibility can not be written off in the long run even though it may seem like a pipe dream in the current geo-political scenario.
Interestingly, Simranjit Singh Mann, President of SAD (Amritsar) spoke about the possibility of trilateral economic cooperation between India-China and Pakistan, and while pitching for opening of more trade routes with Pakistan (through Punjab), spoke in favor of India joining CPEC.
In the short run, political outfits from Punjab, should continuously urge the central government to give a boost to bilateral trade through Wagah-Attari land route, and also consider opening the Hussainiwala-Kasur land route for bilateral trade (while there have been demands for trade through Sulemanki (Fazilka), there is a greater possibility of opening the Hussainiwala-Kasur route).
It would be important to point out, that continued tensions between both countries have obstructed, not just of economic ties, but also people to people contact – including religious pilgrimages to Pakistan. Last year on more than three occasions, Sikh pilgrims with valid travel documents were not allowed to cross the border, in spite of possessing valid documents (the Ministry of External Affairs blamed the Pakistan government and vice-versa for pilgrims having to face these problems). Religious pilgrimages between both countries have never been significantly disturbed, even at the height of tensions. The previous government under Dr. Manmohan Singh took some constructive steps, such as the introduction of a bus service between Amritsar and Nankana Sahib (though a number of logistical issues were not addressed).
It was surprising to see, that neither the SAD nor the INC raised the issue of Sikh pilgrims (in spite of the sensitivities involved) being inconvenienced, with the central government.
All political outfits in Punjab would do well to join hands and debate serious issues, and make their voice heard on important issues (including ties with Pakistan). Hopefully, the entry of a new player, ‘Punjab Manch’, into the political arena, led by Dr. Dharamvira Gandhi will ensure that serious issues (economic, social, political and foreign policy) pertaining to the state will get precedence.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is New Delhi-based Foreign Policy Analyst
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