Published : Jan 30, 2004 00:00 IST

Two years of brinkmanship is officially over as Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Pervez Musharraf announce on the sidelines of the SAARC summit the resumption of the composite dialogue process. And, for the first time, Musharraf states that Pakistan will not support terrorists on territory under its control, and India is ready to trust him.

in Islamabad

YET another chapter has been opened in the tumultuous bilateral relationship between India and Pakistan. Fittingly, it was the summit of South Asian leaders in Islamabad that provided the stage for the rapprochement between the two biggest nations of the region. President Pervez Musharraf announced on January 6, a day after his hour-long meeting with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, that "history has been made". Two years of brinkmanship was officially over as the Indian and Pakistani leaders announced the resumption of the dialogue process. A couple of months ago, it would have been impossible to imagine the Indian Prime Minister and the Pakistan President shaking hands as warmly as they did in Islamabad. In September last year the two sides were exchanging pointed barbs in New York, where the Indian and Pakistani leaders had gone to address the United Nations General Assembly.

The renewed attempts to restart the dialogue process began gaining momentum towards the end of last year. Musharraf went on record in mid-December as saying that he was willing to put the U.N. Security Council resolutions on Kashmir on the back burner and talk of other ways to resolve the Kashmir issue. The U.N. resolutions are considered sacrosanct by the Pakistani establishment, and Musharraf is the first Pakistani leader in power to have made such a proposal. Significantly, Musharraf did not go back on his statement despite the contrary views articulated by Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali and other leading Pakistani figures.

Pakistani officials say that Musharraf's comments on the Security Council resolutions only reflect the reality on the ground. They say that a plebiscite in divided Kashmir is no longer a feasible proposition, politically as well as logistically. Indian officials, too, say that the apparent mellowing of the Pakistan President's stance smoothened the way towards the dialogue process.

Most observers of the South Asian scene believe that the major factor that jump-started the process was the pressure brought on Musharraf and to a lesser extent on the Indian government by the Bush administration. Pakistan is Washington's lynchpin in the war against terrorism in the region. The assassination attempt against Musharraf on December 25 by "jehadi" elements having a Kashmir connection had sent the alarm bells ringing in Washington. It was the second serious attempt on his life within the span of a few days. Pakistani officials now openly talk about the close links between Al Qaeda and militant Kashmiri groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammad. Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had, in a widely distributed audiotape, called for the overthrow of Musharraf for betraying Islam.

The Americans were on diplomatic overdrive using the leverage they have accumulated in Islamabad and Delhi. American Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told an Indian television network in the second week of January that the United States was in touch with leaders of both the countries. Pakistani officials acknowledged that Washington had been urging them to adopt flexible stances in the interest of stability in the region. "Whoever played the role, needed to play the role," was Musharraf's cryptic response when he was asked about Washington's role in the drama that unfolded in Islamabad.

The Americans want the huge number of Pakistani troops deployed on the Indian border to be diverted to the Afghan border to root out Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which have become increasingly active in recent months. The Pakistan government came under additional pressure from Washington after credible information leaked about Pakistani scientists helping Iran's nuclear programme. To make matters worse for Islamabad, Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi's son went on record as stating that some of the know-how for Libya's nascent nuclear programme had emanated from Pakistan.

Washington has made it clear that it considers Islamabad a major nuclear proliferator. Washington also views Pakistan as one of the unstable states in the region. It recognises that power in the wrong hands in Islamabad would constitute a serious threat to its interests. Washington fears that after Musharraf it could be the deluge in Pakistan.

American Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to the Indian Prime Minister and the Pakistan President a few days before the leaders met during the summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The U.S. media have been reporting that the lines of communication have been open between Vajpayee and Musharraf for the past eight months. There was speculation of meetings between the Indian Prime Minister's National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra and Musharraf's Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Hamid Javed and Secretary of Pakistan's National Security Council Tariq Aziz in Washington and Dubai. The three did have several meetings in Islamabad on the sidelines of the SAARC summit.

In retrospect, it was clear that the Indian side had come to Islamabad to signal formally the restart of the dialogue process, despite protestations to the contrary until the eleventh hour. The fact that Brajesh Mishra was in Islamabad meeting top Pakistani officials a couple of days before Vajpayee arrived was an indication that the groundwork for a high-level meeting was being done.

THE agreement in Islamabad on holding a "composite dialogue" is viewed as a far-reaching one. The jubilant reaction of the international community is proof of its importance. The Joint Statement said that the Pakistan President had "reassured Prime Minister Vajpayee that he would not permit any territory under Pakistan's control to be used to support terrorism in any manner. President Musharraf emphasised that a sustained and productive dialogue addressing all issues would lead to productive results".

The Pakistani side had not given such an explicit undertaking before. The Indian side agreed to say that "the two leaders are confident that the resumption of the composite dialogue will lead to the peaceful settlement of all bilateral issues, including Jammu and Kashmir, to the satisfaction of both sides".

During the Agra Summit between the two leaders in July 2001, the talks had floundered on Islamabad's inability to give a similar undertaking. Pakistani officials say that Musharraf offered the same deal in Agra. Only the language used in the Joint Statement issued in Islamabad is different, they say. Indian officials believe that Musharraf's assurance on curbing terrorism imply a change in his thinking. Indian officials ascribe the change in policy to several factors, chief among them being the September 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S., which changed the American worldview on terrorism and militancy. Indian officials say that the massive military deployment across the western border after the attack on Parliament House in Delhi also had an impact on the Pakistan government. This view has few takers both in India and in Pakistan. Indian officials, however, admit that the two successive attempts on Musharraf's life did have an impact on the thinking in government circles in Islamabad.

The Indian side is not officially claiming a diplomatic victory in Islamabad. It is a "win-win" situation is the refrain on both sides of the border. Indian officials say it is important for Musharraf to have an agreement in hand on the dialogue process before he launches a frontal assault on the "jehadis" at home. Musharraf told the media at his press conference in Islamabad that he would take tough action against "sectarian and religious extremists. We should move strongly on the peace track, as if these forces don't exist". Indian officials claimed that Vajpayee had not scheduled a meeting with Musharraf before leaving for the SAARC summit. They said the fact that Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali's speech at the inaugural session contained no references to Kashmir led to a change of heart.

The Indian side, which until the other day refused to break bread with Musharraf, is now of the opinion that the General is a changed man. Just before the SAARC summit the Pakistan Parliament amended the Constitution and gave its democratic stamp of approval to his seizure of power in 1999. Musharraf now has the requisite constitutional sanction to remain President for his full five-year term.

After January 2001, New Delhi had said that it would not do business with an undemocratically installed leader. However, after the Islamabad meeting between Vajpayee and Musharraf, Indian officials are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Musharraf.

Senior Indian officials said in the second week of January that bilateral ties would not be derailed even if there are stray terrorist incidents. They said they were convinced that Musharraf comprehended India's concerns about terrorism. In short, the blame for terrorist incidents will henceforth not be immediately put on Islamabad and such acts will not be allowed to derail the dialogue process between the two countries. In his interaction with the media, Musharraf said: "All sides should exercise caution. Small things should not be allowed to derail the peace process."

Inside Pakistan, there was sharp criticism in some quarters against what is perceived as a betrayal of Kashmiri interests. Even some liberal-minded commentators said the Musharraf government had dumped the Kashmiri cause just as the Taliban were after September 11, 2001. The generally articulated view among opposition politicians and commentators in Pakistan is that the Kashmir issue has been put on the back burner at least for the time being.

Musharraf said he had consulted the Kashmiri leadership based in Pakistan before taking the new steps. During his press conference in Islamabad after the SAARC summit, Musharraf had emphasised that Kashmir remained the key issue and would remain part of the proposed composite dialogue between India and Pakistan. He underlined the importance of "simultaneity" in the dialogue process. "We should move on all issues, including Kashmir, at the same time."

The Prime Minister of "Azad Kashmir", Sardar Sikandar Hayat Khan, told this correspondent in Islamabad that he was being kept in the loop about the developments relating to Kashmir. "Musharraf is a man of his word. He will not let the Kashmiris down." He, however, wanted both countries to take into consideration the views of the Kashmiri people. In reply to a question, he said the Pakistani government would not treat Kashmiris the way the Turkish government was treating northern Cypriots. In its eagerness to join the European Union, the Turkish government has prepared the ground for dumping Northern Cyprus, a Muslim-majority area, which it had carved out of the Republic of Cyprus. (As is well known, Musharraf is an admirer of the Turkish Army and the political model it has imposed on the Turkish state.)

Sikandar Hayat Khan is, however, happy that "the ice has melted" between India and Pakistan. "Eighty per cent of Kashmiris will support the peace moves," he said. He was particularly enthused by the ceasefire that continued to prevail along the LoC. He said there was great relief among the populace in the area administered by him. The intense firing along the LoC for the last many years had disrupted the lives of more than one-third of the population of the Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, he said.

The ceasefire between the Indian and Pakistani armies should be a "permanent" one, he said, and welcomed the proposal for a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. But he insisted that Kashmiris on both sides should be allowed to travel without passports. Until the mid-1950s, Kashmiris from both sides could travel across the LoC on the basis of other official documents. Accepting passports as valid legal documents for travel would imply recognition of existing borders and states.

Pakistani officials insist that there has been no change in Musharraf's position. "For more than two years Musharraf has been saying that Pakistan will not allow its territory to be used for terrorism," said an official. He said there was a change in the Indian mindset, too, in the past one year. "There is a realisation of the truth even in the Sangh Parivar. Both the Indian and Pakistani leaderships are now looking at a much broader picture," the official said. He pointed to the fourth paragraph of the Joint Statement issued in Islamabad. "Prime Minister Vajpayee said that in order to take forward and sustain the dialogue process, violence, hostility and terrorism must be prevented," said the paragraph.

The official said this paragraph could be open to different interpretations. "Violence can emanate from the security forces as well as the militants," he said. He noted that the number of casualties in the Valley, along with arrests, had come down significantly in the past three weeks. "We have to get out of the zero sum syndrome," said the official.

Musharraf told the media in Islamabad that he could lend a helping hand in Kashmir. "If I propose a ceasefire in Kashmir, there could be a response. However, the effectiveness of my words will be enhanced only if we move ahead," said Musharraf.

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