Pakistan's albatross

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

"IS our Kashmir policy right, at least in the contemporary times?'' An interesting though nascent debate keeps surfacing in the Pakistani media. "Is Kashmir for Pakistan or is Pakistan for Kashmir?'' The soul-searching often surfaces among an astute minority of the thinking classes. In this context, they also examine the latest `Pakistan First' slogan of the present regime. And often they reach some not-so-popular and not-so-expected conclusions.

In fact, some of these scholars put forth a viewpoint that Pakistan has lost a great deal in the process of espousing the Kashmir cause. While the cost of maintaining the momentum on Kashmir has drained the economy, the jehad culture has undermined the country's credibility in the international arena. Yet others ask if there ever can be a solution to the Kashmir problem, through war or peace, that will suit Pakistan's interests.

In a fact-filled article published in the Dawn, the columnist Amin M. Lakhani says: "Pakistan's singular preoccupation with Kashmir, subordinating it to all other priorities, has been self-defeating. Domestically, it has thwarted the country's economic, social and political development. Internationally, this single-point agenda has diminished the country's stature and left its reputation smeared. Even its spiritual development has been warped by the proliferation, popularisation and increase in relative power - post-Partition - of religious groups that represent an intolerant, militant and gender-biased interpretation of Islam."

Lakhani provides comparisons. "The 145 million people of Pakistan are crying for the rights of self-determination of the 13 million people of Kashmir... but what political rights have the people of Pakistan themselves enjoyed over the past 55 years? Can Pakistan demand, with a straight face, rights for another people when it has constantly denied political rights to its own people for over 50 years?"

The columnist says further: "Approximately 38 per cent of the population, equivalent to four Kashmirs, lived below the poverty line in 2000-2002. The World Bank states that in 2000, 54 per cent of the population of 15.46 million people, equal to three Kashmirs, was illiterate. And, Bangladesh with 134 million people equals ten Kashmirs." Lakhani says Pakistan has been so mesmerised by Kashmir that it is willing to risk a nuclear war over it. Yet it was insensitive and inflexible on the dialogue and political accommodation that were needed to retain East Pakistan.

In an ultimate pointer to the futility of Pakistan's Kashmir policy, he quotes from a poll conducted in Jammu and Kashmir by the British group, Friends of Kashmir. It revealed that more than 65 per cent of the respondents wanted independence from both India and Pakistan. "But if that is what Kashmiris want, why are 145 million Pakistanis subordinating every national objective to a delusion?" Lakhani asks.

All this questioning is happening against the background of the hardly-budging hardliners who have dictated Kashmir policy for long. There is little doubt that General Pervez Musharraf had pushed the hard line on Kashmir rather vigorously until September 11, 2001. He was the first Pakistani head of state to declare on February 5, 2000, in an address to the customary Kashmir day rally in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, that "the Afghan jehad'' had now "shifted to Kashmir''. September 2001 changed the situation and caused Pakistan to do a volte-face on its Afghanistan policy as well as in the matter of its open support to Islamic militancy and armed jehad. Yet Kashmir remained the focal point of foreign policy. On September 19, 2001, Musharraf delivered an important address to the nation, his first bid to justify his decision to abandon the Taliban and side with the U.S. He cited the need to protect the cause of Kashmir as one of the reasons for the U-turn.

This provided a basis to the argument both in Pakistan and in India that Pakistan's military has a vested interest in continuing the Kashmir policy as it exists. Otherwise it stands to lose its importance in the scheme of things as well as the preference it gets in budgetary allocations.

It also remains a fact that thanks to the policies of the past decade and a half beginning with Gen. Zia-ul-Haq's policies, a section of the military has become rather `Talibanised'. It has an impact on the policies of the military establishment as a powerful lobby as well as in the form of what they term `rogue elements'. Besides, the same policies of pro-active Islamisation have created thousands of jehadis. Even if you sincerely want to change your outlook on Kashmir, what do you do with these trained men of arms who are as used to state patronage as they are to their fighter's way of life? They have fought the Soviet forces, the long war in Afghanistan after the Soviet forces left, ruled that country. In fact they take the credit for having brought down the Soviet Union. They have fought in Kashmir. Will they let go if the establishment that has encouraged them all this while asks them to? Will they stop?

How to tame these jehadis, is the big question for Pakistan. Add to this the fact that in the post-Iraq war world order, a solution to the Kashmir problem that will be favourable to Pakistan seems rather illusory. In an article in The Friday Times analyst Khaled Ahmed points to the continuance of the impasse, even a risk of war, if the talks do not achieve their objective.

"Gen. Musharraf is probably the last man who can settle Kashmir with India. Vajpayee has implied that he could also be the last man to settle with Pakistan. But they look in no mood actually to settle. That means this time too the window of opportunity is going to close on peace in the region. It seems no one in India and Pakistan is either willing or knows how to get out of the strangulating knot of Kashmir," Ahmed says, and adds: "Pakistan doesn't need war and requires an ambience of peace to come out of its decade-long economic trough. General Musharraf should separate Kashmir from normalisation and allow the discussion on Kashmir to stretch over months, if not years, while normalisation takes off."

Besides, as Lakhani points out, "it is self-destructive for a $65-billion economy to get into a bleeding match with a $450 billion economy". In his article he counsels Musharraf to act "on the same advice he gave the people of Bangladesh" recently when he said that the "courage to compromise is greater than to confront''.

What one witnesses is a new way of thinking that is almost like a paradigm shift considering Pakistan's past ways. The demand seems to be that in a post-September 11, post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq war world order, it is time to put the Kashmir issue on the back burner, normalise ties with India and address the more serious, basic issues of economy and rebuilding of Pakistan. In effect, do an action replay of Afghanistan.

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