The recent overtures from both sides clearly indicate that Pakistan and India want to improve their bilateral relations. Pakistani President Asif Zardari’s non-state visit to India and the ensuing joint communiqué, grant of MFN status for India, resumption of sports activities and Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid’s recent wish that “it is high time Pakistan and India moved forward together hand-in-hand”, are some of the indicators pointing in the right direction. Both countries agree that there are outstanding issues and unless these are resolved, they cannot continue the process of normalisation. Unfortunately, the track record of dispute resolution through bilateral efforts has not been a promising one. Though there is a sense of relief that both official and track II channels are operative, yet there is only a subdued optimism in the context of final outcome.

It is unfortunate that some very meaningful peace processes between the two countries went astray for one reason or another. An objective analysis reveals that most of these processes comprised of protracted rounds of parleys focused on peripheries, while shying away from the core issues. The outcome was obvious: lingering disputes remained unresolved and they revisited at critical stages of the negotiations to block any qualitative improvement in the relationship. Quantitatively, the situation has been of one step forward and two backward.

In the present atmosphere of visible political will to try another reset, it is essential to learn from previous slippages and focus the effort on core issues - territorial disputes. Unfortunately, the two countries have not been able to achieve anything worthwhile in territorial disputes. Indian Held Kashmir (IHK), Sir Creek and Siachen are the tipping points; of these, IHK has always dominated the canvas of relations between Pakistan and India. There is a need to mobilise comparable political will to resolve the issue. Apparently, the governments of both countries have the clout to achieve the requisite critical mass.

As Pakistan is likely to be a beneficiary in case of an equitable resolution of most of the territorial disputes, it has always been keen to see the conclusive phase of the efforts aimed at resolving them. Due to successive disruptions, Pakistanis have, to some extent, become disenchanted with the mundane rituals of dialogue and are in a state of despondency. The Indians too have developed an attitude of indifference towards bilateral initiatives; hardliners on the Indian side are confident that India would not cede any space to Pakistan through dialogue. So there is a need to restore public confidence in the bilateral dialogue.

The Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, has recently said: “India wants to resolve all issues, including Jammu and Kashmir, with Pakistan through dialogue.” Thus, it would be worthwhile to start with Kashmir; the effort should be beyond rhetoric, something concrete and irreversible to convince the people of the two counties that the Kashmir dispute would be resolved within a reasonable timeframe.

The conflict is recognised by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and its settlement framework has also been specified in the Council’s resolutions. Both Pakistan and India have agreed to its proposal of a plebiscite. Ever since, Pakistan has maintained a consistent stance that it regards the resolutions as the best way of settling the issue. Whereas, India has persistently followed a policy of deliberate ambiguity, alternating between acceptance and denial of the dispute; the objective of this murky approach is to erode the mandate of UNSC resolutions. Needless to say, the resolutions are the best way out for providing a win-win situation for Pakistani, Indian and Kashmiri people.

Persistent resistance by the people of IHK against the oppressive Indian rule has kept the issue in the limelight at the international level. The spells of Kashmiri intifada have been spectacular in their scope, scale and expanse. The tenor of struggle has gradually transformed from militancy to a peaceful political resistance. It is visibly out of India’s control, both politically and militarily. The world watches with dismay that even by stationing around 600,000 combatants for over a decade, India has not been able to subdue the spirit of the Kashmiris.

Occupied Kashmir has the unenviable distinction of being the most militarised zone in the world. The hardest hit victim of the conflict has been its socio-economic fabric. Recent reports by Amnesty International (AI) and Citizen’s Council for Justice (CCJ) have adequately exposed the human rights violations in IHK.

Nevertheless, the Kashmir conflict can be resolved by creating a sense of security among people – i.e. Kashmiris. This could be done through the revocation of all draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), Public Safety Act, Disturbed Areas Act, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act etc. Further, a timeframe should be announced for the retrieval of the Indian army to their barracks and let the state police take care of the law and order situation. The IHK government should also release all prisoners of conscience.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister has extended an invitation to the members of the Executive Council of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) to visit Pakistan from December 15 to 22, 2012. This initiative has been taken to begin a consultative process between the political leadership of Pakistan, AJK and pro-movement leaders of IHK. This initiative is expected to jumpstart the process for a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue. Pakistan envisages that APHC could act as a catalyst in bridging the gap between the two governments’ standpoint and aspirations of the people of Kashmir. From the Kashmiri perspective also, frequent interactions between the political leadership of the two side of Kashmir would result in narrowing down their perceptional gaps. Hopefully, the visit of APHC’s leadership would be the first step to restart an intra-Kashmir process of dialogue and the Kashmiris on both sides would be able to take advantage of the current improvement in relations between Pakistan and India.

While addressing the 67th session of the General Assembly, President Zardari had rightly said: “Kashmir remains a symbol of failure of the UN system.” Understandably, the UN effort had reached a dead end because of its structural inadequacies. Both Pakistan and India should pickup the threads from where the UN left them in 1948 and move ahead for the resolution of Kashmir and other territorial disputes. Otherwise, the current thaw would also be a short-lived political gimmick.

The writer is a retired Air Commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University.