By Faris Islam
Oct 3rd, 2011
While much of our national attention has been fixated on the ongoing soap opera of Pak-US relations and the growing crises on our western border, a major piece of good news on the eastern front has slipped by almost unnoticed.
After a meeting between Commerce Minister Makhdoom Amin Fahim and his Indian counterpart Anand Sharma, the two countries have announced major new initiatives towards increasing trade between the two foes – initiatives that if implemented would go a long way to strengthen trade relations between the two countries as well as Pakistan’s trade relations with others.
Headlining the good news coming out of New Delhi was the announcement that India would support Pakistan’s efforts to receive trade concessions from the European Union. In addition to this news – hailed as a “landmark decision” by the Chairman of the All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA) – the two countries have also announced plans to more than double their bilateral trade within the next three years and open another border trading post in addition to the crossing at Wagah. These announcements mark an important step on the long and difficult journey towards normalising trade relations with our larger – and economically stronger – Eastern neighbor and could reap enormous dividends in the difficult journey for peace in South Asia.
Indeed, stronger trade and commercial ties between Pakistan and India could provide the long-sought after foundation upon which a sustainable and mutually beneficial peace can be built. While obviously a host of issues remain to be solved before peace can be achieved – from water-sharing to border demarcation to disarmament to the ever-explosive (literally) issue of Kashmir – by building strong economic links between Pakistan and India, our governments can both foster cooperation and raise the cost of conflict till it becomes but a distant nightmare. The stronger the economic exchanges between our two nations, the more costly to our economy it becomes to increase hostility and the more stable our relationship becomes.
If the prospect of peace were not enough, on a more immediate level the announcement that India is posed to withdraw its objection at the WTO to trade concessions to Pakistani products by the European Union provides both tangible benefits and an important precedent. On the ground this eases the process towards providing trade concessions on 75 goods representing 900 million Euros or 27 per cent of the EU’s imports from Pakistan.
In the long term this sets an important precedent as well, that regardless of the tense relationship between Pakistan and India, there is no need to continue the petty, knee-jerk reaction of opposing a policy because it benefits the other country. Should Pakistan reciprocate this gesture, this could pave an important step in the history of the Indo-Pak peace process as both countries realise that their bilateral disagreements need not be aired on the floor of any and every international organisation.
This relates to a broader point in the relationship – or lack thereof – between Pakistan and India. Disagreements over Kashmir, as crucial as they may be, should not be the sole determinant in Indo-Pak relations. I stand shoulder to shoulder with all Pakistanis in supporting the rights of the people of Kashmir to determine their future freely and fairly, but I also believe this ought not to paralyse any prospect of peace between my countrymen and our neighbors across the border with whom we lived side-by-side for hundreds of years. While the people of Kashmir deserve the right to live in peace, so too do the other hundreds of millions of residents of the subcontinent. Increased trade has the possibility to increase prosperity, to lift people out of poverty and jumpstart the economy of areas along the Indo-Pak border.
Ending the precarious state of insecurity within which South Asia has lived for more than 60 years has more benefits than could possibly be imagined. Peace has the potential to let us shift our national priorities – and funds – away from preparing to fight our neighbor and towards fighting poverty and illiteracy and disease.
Peace has the potential to allow families that have been torn apart by the borders of 1947 to meet again and visit each other easily. Peace has the potential to allow us to come to terms with our own proud history as a united South Asia and end the maligning of Hindus in Pakistan and Muslims in India. Luckily, while so many have been distracted by the ongoing drama between Islamabad and Washington, the potential of peace has been laid in New Delhi.
Faris Islam studied Political Science and History at Tufts University. He is based in Karachi, where he works in the development sector.
Source: The Dawn, Karachi