- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007


The horrific bomb blast aboard the Samjhauta [Friendship] Express as it made its twice weekly run from India’s capital to Lahore, Pakistan, shocked millions on both sides of the border. Some 70 passengers, most of them Pakistanis, were killed by sabotage of the train, a signal example of growing relations between the countries, who have fought four wars since Muslim-dominated Pakistan was partitioned from India 60 years ago.

Government ministers, the media and religious leaders in both countries took pains not to fan emotions and there have been no pubic demonstrations, a remarkable sign of the prevailing desire for peace. President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Delhi conferred by telephone and Pakistan’s foreign minister traveled to the Indian capital for previously arranged meetings to discuss next steps in normalizing bilateral relations.

Five years ago, reaction would have been far different. Both capitals would have been in uproar, very possibly on fire, accusing each other of abetting terrorism, with media and sectarian fanatics actively fanning the flames.

The striking mood change has come about because leadership cadres in both countries have understood it is in their best interests to give peace a chance. With quiet urging from government and private sectors in the United States and Britain, political and media opinion leaders have become convinced their countries will advance much more rapidly in the absence of strife.

Given South Asia’s regionwide cauldron of discontent, calm reaction to potentially provocative events is a major development, one, it can be hoped, that may spread to Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and perhaps even to hapless Afghanistan.

The annual summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), in April will have normalization of relations as a key agenda topic. Delhi, host of this year’s meeting, has long sought to stabilize regional relations. On recent visits to SAARC’s eight other member states, Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, stressed “our vision … which is one of regionalism.”

SAARC members established the South Asia Free Trade Area which has agreed to cut tariffs progressively through 2016, a development Mr. Mukherjee sees as underscoring “our firm conviction that the South Asian subcontinent has a common future. We want to extend the hand of cooperation to all countries based on sovereign equality and mutual respect.”

Much ground still needs to be covered, particularly between Pakistan and India. For instance, although direct bilateral trade is a relative trickle, companies in each country buy products worth billions of dollars from the other, via Dubai and Singapore. Such transshipment of goods works to the disfavor of consumers, forced to pay significantly higher prices, and businessmen on both sides hope ongoing security concerns can be overcome to allow direct transport between the countries.

Among good signs are bilateral meetings between academics from both countries’ universities. In the medical sector, Indian ayurvedic health leader AVP (for Arya Vaidya Pharmacy [Coimbatore] Ltd.) is exploring establishment of a major hospital in Karachi, Pakistan.

Despite the train bombing that killed some 70 people and wounded scores of others, there is every reason to believe the balm of peaceful Indo-Pakistani relations will continue to spread.

John R. Thomson, a geopolitical analyst who first traveled to India in 1967, is on an extended visit to the country.

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