Published : Jan 19, 2002 00:00 IST

Under pressure to take positive measures in order to ease the tension in India-Pakistan relations, President Pervez Musharraf announces major decisions. But a cautious India seems to have moved little from its often-stated positions.

GENERAL PERVEZ MUSHARRAF lacks the democratic forums that elected leaders normally use to announce major decisions and articulate their underlying rationale. He has, partly under the force of circumstances, developed a particular expertise at bonding through the airwaves. Through the expanding coverage of television, Musharraf has managed to extend his own direct appeal across his own troubled nation and the world, seeking to communicate directly with key constituencies at moments of crisis.

Shortly after the September 11 attacks in the United States, the Pakistan President was called upon to make a major address rationalising a policy reversal - from being the Afghan Taliban's principal mentor and benefactor, Pakistan was about to offer itself as a springboard for a military offensive against Afghanistan. But as the war ran its inexorable course and the wider repercussions began to play themselves out, pressures began to accumulate on Pakistan's frontiers with India. Musharraf's September speech was in this sense an unfinished work of art. The final touches needed to be applied, as they were on January 12 in an address that made the overdue and much required closure to the process of shift and change that he began in September.

Musharraf's preparations for the latest in his series of addresses to the nation occurred against an ominous backdrop. On January 11, India's Chief of the Army Staff, General S. Padmanabhan, officially certified the mobilisation on the border as being complete and adequate to undertake the entire onus of coercive action that may be required in the circumstances. Concurrently, Home Minister L.K. Advani was by most accounts winning a sympathetic audience among top U.S. administration officials for the proposition that Pakistan still had a long way to go to establish its peaceable credentials and its commitment to the battle against terrorism. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, anxious to damp down tensions between two countries he viewed as allies, was reportedly in daily telephonic contact with Musharraf, while counselling the Indian side not to expect any instant results.

As the going got tough, it was clearly time for the tough-talking General to get going. The day he was scheduled to address the nation, the Pakistan police rounded up a few hundred Islamic militants across the country, focussing especially on Karachi and its environs. The police were also given advance intimation that the offices of certain extremist religious organisations were to be raided and sealed immediately after the President's speech. And with the stage thus set both locally and internationally, Musharraf took centre stage possibly to speak to his largest audience ever.

Delivered in Urdu with a generous leavening of English, his hour-long address on January 12 was part preachy excursus into the glorious past of Islam. That set the stage for a description of how the spirit of the religion had been vitiated by political operatives. And with that preface behind him, seemingly with the specific purpose of establishing his credentials as a warrior for Islam's future, Musharraf got down to the business end. The lawlessness that had spread under the garb of righteous religiosity, he said, had to end, and the writ of the state had to be respected.

There were three issues of specific concern to Pakistan, in which this insistence on the authority of the state would be enforced: the Kashmir "struggle", all other international conflicts which involved Muslim populations, and finally, the internal sectarian strife which pitted Muslim against Muslim.

For obvious reasons, in India, what Musharraf had to say on Kashmir was the part of his speech that was the most looked forward to. It was also, for equally obvious reasons, the most predictable part. Kashmir, he said, "runs in the blood" of every Pakistani. There was no way Pakistan could "budge an inch from its principled stand on Kashmir". Yet, terrorism had no place in the Kashmir struggle.

With these general principles stated, Musharraf sought out two specific constituencies to address his overtures to. First, he made a direct appeal to the Indian Prime Minister to respond to his initiative and engage with Pakistan in an effort to resolve the Kashmir problem. Second, he urged the international community, and particularly the U.S., to put pressure on India to "bring an end to state terrorism and human rights violations". Unmindful of the resentments that the proposal could stir up in India, he demanded that impartial international organisations, such as Amnesty International, be allowed access into Kashmir to monitor the "activities of the Indian occupation forces".

Musharraf's only concession to India was to reaffirm the ban imposed recently on the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the two extremist organisations believed to be responsible for the December 13 attack on India's Parliament complex. India's demarche that a list of "most wanted" terrorists be handed over, was formally rebuffed. There was no question of handing over any Pakistani national, said the General. And if there was any foreign national on the Indian list, then he would be dealt with appropriately when found.

There was never any likelihood that Pakistan would readily fulfil India's demands, although it has in the past bypassed judicial procedure to hand over terrorist suspects to the U.S. But Musharraf's disavowal of any knowledge about the presence on his territory of Indian nationals wanted for terrorist crimes in this country is disingenuous, if anything. The underworld don Dawood Ibrahim is a high-profile presence in Karachi, together with his associates from the Memon family. The militant leader Syed Salahuddin, or Mohammad Yusuf Shah, a one-time candidate for election to the Jammu and Kashmir legislature, continues to operate from safe havens in Rawalpindi and other centres in Pakistan, directing the operations of the Hizbul Mujahideen. Musharraf's pretence is evidently difficult to sustain, though there is a likelihood that under U.S. pressure the Indian government may connive in the dissimulation.

MUSHARRAF'S main challenge, of course, was to deal with the threat of internal disorder that the burgeoning strength of Islamic militancy posed. And, to an extent, India was concerned about this aspect of his endeavour since much of the violence in Kashmir is a spillover of competitive sectarianism in Pakistan. Musharraf had to announce credible measures to rein in the religious hotheads who had flourished and been elevated to positions of conspicuous influence under the preceding military regime of Zia-ul-Haq. He had to do this at a time when the vanquishing of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan seriously constricted the space for manoeuvre available to him. And he had to avoid any impression that he was capitulating to India's demands. That would have been unacceptable within the Army's command hierarchy and to the religious seminaries.

All this he sought to achieve in a manner strongly reminiscent of his speech to the nation in September, when he formalised the annulment of the Pakistan military's unholy alliance with the Taliban. "Trust me" and "Pakistan first", was the message he delivered then. This was the theme that resonated again through his January 12 address. No individual or organisation would be at liberty to determine how Pakistan should intervene in an extra-territorial dispute involving Muslims, he announced. That authority would be reserved for the government of the day, whose writ must be obeyed. The implications for Pakistan's policy in Afghanistan and Kashmir are evident.

This affirmation was not confined to the level of principle. Musharraf has also brought into existence ordinances that empower the government to regulate the activities of all religious endowments, trusts and institutions. This extends to the minute details of the specific purposes for which loudspeakers will be allowed in mosques, the syllabi of instruction in religious seminaries, and the registration of such institutions with government authorities.

Expectedly, much of the speculation that followed the President's speech focussed on the institutional resources he had available to enforce his decisions. The Pakistan military is believed to be strongly behind him, though the occasional enclave of Islamism within the armed forces could pose a threat. Equally important, the Army is today stretched out in border duties, and the police force, which is less amenable to centralised authority, would have to perform the larger part of the enforcement function. The record of Musharraf's earlier attempts to curb the spread of unauthorised weapons and reining in sectarian groups does not, in this respect, inspire great confidence.

Perhaps because of the new sense of resolve that is now apparent in the Pakistan administration, Musharraf's speech was welcomed with little reserve across world capitals. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell commended the General for his "bold and principled stand", which, he said, created the basis for a resolution of current tensions through peaceful and diplomatic means. President George Bush's spokesperson put out a statement welcoming the "firm decision" to prohibit extra-territorial militant action by any individual or organisation based in Pakistan. And British Prime Minister Tony Blair looked forward to "the resolution of differences on Kashmir through peaceful means and dialogue". Warm words of endorsement were also issued by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Political opinion within Pakistan, irrelevant until recently but now of crucial importance in sustaining the embattled General in his new enterprise, was mixed in its reaction. A spokesman for Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party criticised Musharraf for not having acknowledged the fact that the misguided policies of previous unelected governments like his - a pointed reference to Zia's military dictatorship - was responsible for tarnishing the nation's image and bringing it to the verge of anarchy. Benazir Bhutto herself, from the comfort of her exile in Dubai, held the military responsible for the current conundrum. The refusal to "crack down against private militias despite the pressure of democratic opinion" had brought Pakistan to a perilous pass, leading to "a final capitulation" under the pressure of an Indian military mobilisation on the border, she said.

The two rival factions of the Pakistan Muslim League took opposing views. The Nawaz Sharif group, by far the larger one, criticised the "rules of conduct' that were being imposed upon religious institutions, which it alleged had not been attempted even under British colonialism. In contrast, the Qaid-e-Azam group led by Gohar Ayub Khan, son of the former military dictator, welcomed the "positive" tenor of the speech and described the resolve to end militant activities on Pakistani soil as a highly overdue one.

The Indian reaction was, for obvious reasons, less than effusive. From distant New York Home Minister Advani welcomed Musharraf's disavowal of terrorism as a means to address the Kashmir issue and said that this should logically translate into a commitment "not to facilitate anyone to cross the Line of Control or international border to commit acts of terror'' within Indian territory. He also added, though, that "cynicism and scepticism" were so deeply entrenched in India that Pakistan would be judged not by its words but by its actions.

Across the political spectrum in India, there was a suggestion of a positive reaction, though the dominant mood remained one of caution. The rejection of the culture of jehad was almost universally appreciated, though there remained an element of doubt about the conversion of this resolve into practice.

Shortly after a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security on January 13, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh made India's formal response public. "We want to know the difference between words and actions," he said, while affirming that any positive response to Musharraf's overtures would have to await the translation of his "intention" to combat terrorism into "reality". With elaborate care for the fine print, Jaswant Singh also sought to remind Pakistan that the commitment to clamp down on terrorist activities that could hurt India must extend to all the territory under its control - making it clear that the transfer of all militant bases to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir would be a far-from-satisfactory undertaking. Recognising that the main part of Musharraf's speech dealt with the restoration of civic order within his own country, Jaswant Singh said that he "wished the people of Pakistan well in this endeavour".

Jaswant Singh characterised Pakistan's refusal to hand over terrorist suspects wanted by India as ''disappointing'', while claiming that adequate proof to warrant action had been handed over. India, however, rejected the Pakistani stand on Kashmir. And even though India would "respond fully" and "resume the composite dialogue process" if Pakistan were to "move purposefuly towards eradicating cross-border terrorism", such a dialogue would be conducted within the bilateral framework envisaged in the Simla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration.

The military regime's attitude towards Simla and Lahore is no secret. Nor is its belief that the ''composite dialogue'' is an unnecessary diversion from the ''core issue'' of Kashmir. As for Musharraf's overtures to the international community to intervene in the Kashmir dispute, this has been firmly ruled out of court yet again by Jaswant Singh.

A day after Musharraf made his epochal speech, India seemed to have moved little from its often-stated positions. Whether the atmosphere has been created for a de-escalation of military tensions on the border, however, remains unclear. India has a basis for seeking to cool down tensions by pulling back fractionally from the brink, but the mechanisms of consultation between the military operations directorates, which have fallen into disuse over the last few months, remain to be revived. The first test of the concrete impact of Musharraf's speech will lie in the facility with which the hotline between the military establishments is revived. Beyond that, there is a long sequence of actions required, which could - potentially - falter at any point. Experiences with India's Operation Brasstacks exercise in 1986 and Pakistan's Zarb-e-Momin mobilisation in 1989 have shown that stepping back is often a more complicated process than moving forward into battle ready postures.

Beyond that, the dialogue process poses another potential minefield. Musharraf's speech harps yet again on the necessity to implement U.N. resolutions that are over half a century old. As insiders at the Agra summit discussions last year have suggested, his attitude towards Kashmir is focussed and single-dimensional. He shows little awareness of the various complications that arose when a concrete attempt was made to implement the U.N. resolutions through dialogue between India and Pakistan in the first decade of their independence. Neither did he seem aware that a marathon sequence of talks had been held at the foreign ministerial level between the two countries between December 1962 and May 1963 towards the same purpose.

The singular lesson that this experience conveys is that alteration of the sovereign status of any territory - which evidently is the Pakistan military's basic purpose - is not an objective that will win the endorsement of the Indian side. India would like, rather, to focus not on the status of Kashmir but on the situation in the troubled State. It would be open to a cooperative effort to restore peace and order in the State and as it showed in the prelude to the Agra summit, to facilitate easier cross-border movements for Kashmiri citizens. The Pakistan military, which derives much of its political authority from the resonance that the quixotic mission of claiming Kashmir evokes, is unlikely to settle for this second best solution. It would clearly need an external goad to accept the bitter realities of contemporary geopolitics in the region. And that goad, as recent experience has shown, can only come from the U.S.

Musharraf's speech comes as a watershed in a major phase of diplomatic activity in the region, whose relative balances of advantage are yet to stabilise. Close on the heels of Advani, Defence Minister George Fernandes will arrive in Washington for his own separate confabulations with top U.S. officials. Secretary of State Powell will meanwhile set off in the reverse direction, stopping at both Islamabad and New Delhi en route to a donors' conference in Tokyo on the reconstruction of Afghanistan. There is also the likelihood that Zalmay Khalilzad, special envoy of the U.S. President for Afghanistan, will visit New Delhi in the near future.

An Afghan-born American citizen, Khalilzad is a colourful figure with a formidable track record of justifying the unjustifiable. He held relatively junior positions in the National Security Council in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the senior George Bush. In the mid-1990s he was a powerful lobbyist for the U.S. oil company Unocal, arguing the merits of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan with passion and conviction. The stakes were high for his principals, who had committed much energy and large sums of money to tapping the Central Asian gas reserves through a pipeline laid across Afghanistan.

Khalilzad only retreated from his ardent embrace of the Taliban in 1998 when the Clinton administration launched a series of missile strikes against Afghanistan in retaliation for the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa. But today, with the ouster of the Taliban having brought a new respectability to Afghanistan, he is undoubtedly at liberty to resume his pursuit of the energy bonanza in Central Asia.

The crucial question for India, then, would be whether U.S. foreign policy principles will prove as infinitely malleable as in the past - in short, whether another phase of American romance with the Islamic Right may be in prospect. This question assumes vital importance since the U.S. is engaged now in India's neighbourhood as never before. It is no secret any longer that Pakistan's autonomy to negotiate its own course in the world has been severely constricted. The story of India's contracting sphere of autonomy in foreign affairs - as part of the bargain of participating in the U.S.-led "war on terror" - still remains to be told.

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