Kashmir or trade, only political will can help India, Pakistan move forward: Ex-envoy to Delhi

New Delhi: Earlier this month, Pakistan reversed its decision to import sugar and cotton from India, but the country’s former foreign secretary Salman Bashir has said it is keen to have a normal trading relationship with its neighbour.

Bashir, also Pakistan’s former high commissioner to India, told ThePrint in an interview that there is a lack of “political will” from the leaderships on both sides to settle the Kashmir issue, but that if there is political will, then all aspects of their relationship can move forward, including trade normalisation.

“Not just trade normalisation, but a lot of things can be done if there is political will on both sides. Whether that political will exists with adequate fervour between both sides is the big question. Of course, it is absolutely normal and natural to imagine that these two countries need to turn a page in their relationship,” Bashir said.

Bashir was speaking at a time when tensions between India and Pakistan have shown some initial signs of easing. The first of these signs came on 25 February, a day before the second anniversary of the Balakot airstrikes, when the countries issued a joint statement agreeing to the strict observance of the ceasefire along the borders.

The former diplomat thinks it’s definitely a start, but there’s a long road ahead. “There are a lot of opportunities. If the leaderships on both sides agree, we can have a vision for the future,” he said.

Trade under Bashir’s tenure 

When Bashir was Pakistan’s high commissioner to New Delhi, from 2012 to 2014, trade normalisation had progressed significantly, with Islamabad willing to grant the ‘most favoured nation’ (MFN) trade status to India in the form of ‘non-discriminatory market access’ (NDMA). Although this was finalised, but because of change in government in India, it never fructified.

Pakistan had renamed ‘most favoured nation’ status to NDMA to avoid any controversy. Both sides had agreed to trade a large number of products under preferential tariff arrangements that were otherwise not allowed to be traded.

“Back in 2013-2014, both sides had agreed to NDMA. This was just before February 2014, when I left Delhi, and soon, the BJP came to power. Pakistan had decided to give the MFN till the new government was settled, so the agreement could not be signed. Pakistan has always favoured trade normalisation with India,” he said.

“In my view, the last 70 years have been bitter, but there was a lot of substance and agreements were negotiated and reached between the two countries in terms of agreements and understanding. Trade normalisation is one of those substances which is of consequence and should happen at some point in time,” Bashir continued.

‘Article 370 is irrelevant to Pakistan’

Bashir did, however, stress that unless the Kashmir issue is solved amicably to the satisfaction of both sides, no other aspect of India-Pakistan ties can move forward.

“Kashmir is central to all that has hurt the relationship between the two countries, so it cannot be set aside. Even in Kashmir, there are things that are doable and that should be done. And my favourite thing about that is creating comfort for the Kashmiris. If we are able to work together to create comfort for the Kashmiris, at least get to a starting point where (we can) create steps to ease the situation,” the former diplomat said.

“The basic starting point is to start building relations and to deal with realities on both sides. Political leadership has to carry the public opinion along, and the media on both sides has an important role to play,” he averred.

Bashir said while there are “positive vibes” emerging in Islamabad over easing tensions with New Delhi, it is essential for India to grant full statehood to Jammu and Kashmir.

“As far as Pakistan is concerned, the first priority is effectively addressing the situation of Kashmiris. Islamabad is very clear that the steps that were taken (by India) in August 2019 have to be reversed, which essentially means reviving the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir and discarding the efforts to change the demography of Kashmir. I think those are two basic steps on which some sort of understanding has to be reached,” he added.

He also said while Pakistan “never recognised” Article 370 and it is “irrelevant” to the country, Islamabad is upset with the way it was scrapped, “negating human rights of Kashmiri people”.

“Pakistan never recognised the article. It was irrelevant to Pakistan. Our position is very clear and that position is the rights of the people. It’s about the rights of the Kashmiri people, especially human rights, which include the right to self-determination. What upset (Pakistan) is the steps that accompanied the revocation of that article, which put the Kashmiris in great difficulty. Those steps need to be reversed,” he said.

“And, of course, these concerns about the political activity, about the restoration of normalcy in Kashmir… concerns on change of demography have to be laid to rest. These issues ought to be addressed in an effective way,” he stressed. (The Print)

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