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Working for a thaw

Print edition : Feb 02, 2002 T+T-

The intense diplomatic efforts are yet to bring about a real reduction in the tension on the border, though an element of moderation is evident in the rhetoric from both sides.

CLOSE to a fortnight after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited both countries on a mediatory mission, India and Pakistan remained locked in a confrontation along their tense frontier in the last week of January. An element of moderation was evident in the verbal rhetoric, but the artillery duels were continuing at the front lines. There was, indeed, no retreat from India's stated position that the forward military deployments would only be pulled back if Pakistan acceded to the demand for the extradition of 20 named terrorists.

Pakistan threatened initially to reduce this demand to triviality by retorting with a list of wanted terrorists of its own. This was a flippancy that the Markaz Dawa wa'al Irshad, the parent body of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, had floated immediately after President Pervez Musharraf signalled a radical change of course for Pakistan in his January 12 speech. Musharraf's decision to crack down on the Islamic right-wing in Pakistan, it said, placed the onus on India to reciprocate through the incarceration of L.K. Advani and Bal Thackeray, known extremists of a Hindutva persuasion.

To much official consternation in India, this demand was later dignified with an explicit endorsement by Javed Jabbar, Federal Minister in the Pakistan government. Pakistan's Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar sought shortly afterwards to restore to the matter an element of seriousness, though he still clung to the insistence that a list of terrorist suspects would be handed over to India for extradition at an early date. A certain facetiousness was evident in his assertion that the list would be handed over in "due course" so that the exchange of criminal elements could be "done on reciprocal basis".

India's External Affairs Minister moved swiftly to deflate this balloon of petulant tit-for-tat diplomacy. "Were any list to be provided by Pakistan of any Pakistani criminals sheltering illegally in India... I'll immediately return them to Pakistan," he said at a news conference the following day. "There is no question of India providing any legal shelter" and there would be no "legal quibbling". He was prepared, in fact, to receive Pakistan's list of wanted terrorists through any channel, including the "open fax" at his office.

Musharraf, meanwhile, was expressing his cautious hope that the tensions would abate as a consequence of some degree of diplomatic persistence. His military assessment had told him that the Indian Air Force had moved back one notch from its alert status. Also, he believed, certain Indian Army deployments indicating an advanced state of war-preparedness had not taken place. In an interview with a prominent U.S. news magazine, though, he did leave open the possibility that some "mad action" on either side could spiral into full-scale hostilities. Pakistan's President also reaffirmed that he had been using every available channel of communication, including the mission of Colin Powell, to argue the case for reconciliation with India. This involved dialogue and a spirit of accommodation on the "core issue" of Kashmir, he said.

As if to underline the message of sobriety that was being relentlessly broadcast from across the border, the Indian Army soon afterwards pulled a senior commander out of his command post and sent him on leave. The fact that Lieutenant-General Kapil Vij was the commanding officer of the Ambala-based 2 Corps, an elite strike formation bearing much of the onus for the show of force on the border, made his removal at a sensitive military juncture rather curious. There were reports that the General had shown an excess of ardour in pressing his aggressive intent, prompting the U.S. to demand his removal as a gesture of reassurance to Pakistan. There were also suggestions that Vij was being held responsible for a devastating blast that had reduced 80 army trucks to burnt out hulks while troop movements were under way in the Bikaner sector. Rather implausibly, Army Headquarters put out the story that the General's removal was little else than a routine rotation of command responsibilities.

AN armed attack on a U.S. government facility in Kolkata, which claimed the lives of five security personnel, served as signal - brutally unambiguous - of the new phase of superpower engagement in the region. While dilating on the prospects for a rapprochement with the western neighbour at a conclave of global movers-and-shakers in Delhi, Home Minister Advani almost reflexively held Pakistan responsible for the attack. The U.S., meanwhile, was showing a curious reticence about classifying the attack as a terrorist act.

Investigations have pointed to the possible involvement of Syed Ahmed Umar Sheikh, one of three militants sprung from captivity in Indian prisons in December 1999 after the IC-814 hijack. It is believed that Sheikh, whose British nationality and London School of Economics pedigree make him a valuable asset for the global jehad project, is currently living in Islamabad under the protection of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Operational inputs for the attack were allegedly supplied by erstwhile underworld elements from Kolkata now living in safe havens in the Gulf countries.

India's diplomatic task is rendered more complicated by the growing territorial spread of the jehad network. There is little likelihood of even a moderate success in bringing the various elements of the network to account, without the diplomatic sustenance of the U.S. In this respect, India would have to confront the hard reality that the U.S. is still to overcome its ambivalence about the jehadi elements. U.S. thinking is still animated by a notion of the good and bad jehadi. And in all instances, the decisive criterion is the utility to U.S. military and strategic objectives of the state sheltering the jehadi elements.

Perhaps irrefutably, the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has now established that the airlift of Pakistani intelligence and military personnel that took place from the besieged Afghan town of Kunduz last November, was of a much larger scale than India had suspected. Intelligence inputs from the Northern Alliance had alerted India to the evacuation of Pakistani Taliban fighters just when the town seemed on the verge of falling. But Indian protests with the U.S. elicited little response, and at a press briefing U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied any knowledge of the operation. It appears now that the U.S. had connived or possibly even assisted in the airlift, in response to desperate pleas from Musharraf. Then at its most tenuous, the Pakistan regime's political and logistical support for the war in Afghanistan would have been irretrievably damaged, had body bags begun arriving back in large numbers from Kunduz. And so poor was Pakistan's image with the Northern Alliance that bloody reprisals against its military and intelligence personnel were considered almost axiomatic if Kunduz were to fall.

Facilitating the escape of a few lower order Pakistani jehadis was for the U.S. a minor concession to safeguard the larger mission of vanquishing the Taliban. But this indulgence rankled deeply within India. Brajesh Mishra, India's National Security Adviser, is known to have lodged a protest with the U.S. over the solicitous concern it was showing towards Pakistan. But he did not quite succeed in his mission of persuasion.

Colin Powell, on his visit to the region, was anxious to maintain an attitude of scrupulous fairness and equidistance between the two bitter neighbours vying for U.S. attention. And as has happened at least twice in the last three years, a visit by a high U.S. official was followed immediately by speculation about possible high-level contact between India and Pakistan.

All the diplomatic speculation now is about a rather modest objective. On the sidelines of an international security conference scheduled for early-February in Munich, it is expected that Mishra could meet Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar. There has been no confirmation from either side, but it is conceded unofficially that there may be a sequel in Munich to the brief but highly publicised meeting between the two at the recent South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in Kathmandu. Mishra in Kathmandu had been seen exchanging words with Pakistan's Foreign Minister and then consulting with Jaswant Singh, before handing over a note to Sattar. Although the contents of the note have not been made public, it is believed that these could be the agreed summary of discussions held between Jaswant Singh and Sattar on the sidelines of the summit.

It is perhaps another indication of a new situation in the region that India's Republic Day, for the first time in over a decade, passed without incident in Jammu and Kashmir. The All-Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), a Pakistan sponsored conglomerate of secessionist parties in Kashmir, called a general strike whose impact in the valley was almost total. But the absence of any violent incident could be a propitious signal for a phase of diplomatic engagement between India and Pakistan.

On the eve of Republic Day, however, India test-fired the short-range variant of its Agni missile, which from all its technical parameters seems a weapons system designed for use against Pakistan. The global reaction was uniformly adverse, with most Western nations accusing India of recklessly endangering the prospects for peace and stability in the region. Pakistan too reacted with extreme vehemence, though an element of sobriety returned within a day when it made clear its determination to exercise restraint and not be led into a retaliatory test-firing of an equivalent missile system.

IN the months ahead, a curious coincidence of events could possibly exert its influence over relations between India and Pakistan. Musharraf is obliged to hold general elections and transfer power to a civilian administration before October. This is a requirement he has to fulfil in accordance with a judicial verdict on the provisional legitimacy of the military coup that brought him to power. The preliminary moves are under way. An expanded legislative assembly has been decreed, with assured representation for women. The system of separate electorates for the religious minorities has been dispensed with. And more controversially, a minimum educational threshold has been mandated for elected representatives.

With its unique six-year tenure for an elected State legislature, Jammu and Kashmir will also - concurrent with the elections in Pakistan - be entering into the electoral process. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and his National Conference - Delhi's trusted warriors in the political landscape of Jammu and Kashmir - could face a loss of patronage given the new international salience of the Kashmir issue. The portents have recently been evident in certain remarks by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee about his intention to ensure that the next elections in the State are free and fair, unlike some such exercises in the past.

With Pakistan's generous backing, the APHC is known to have made a case for itself with the U.S. Partly under external tutelage and partly on their own initiative, some of Vajpayee's close advisers have also made overtures to secure APHC participation in the State legislature elections. The involvement of this conglomerate of parties - most of which were beginning a process of electoral engagement until the rigged elections of 1987 - could transform the politics of Jammu and Kashmir.

India's case would, however, suffer enormously, if it is unable to rein in the Hindutva hotheads who have come out in full force as a prelude to their mobilisation for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. In the days prior to the Agra Summit with Pakistan, Jaswant Singh had made much of the centrality of Kashmir to Indian nationalism. Being wedded to a civic, rather than a denominational variant of nationalism, he said, India could not accept Pakistan's assertion that Kashmir was a "core dispute".

It was a little incongruous in itself for a politician from the Bharatiya Janata Party, one committed to a notion of "cultural nationalism", to espouse these values. Civic nationalism implies a respect for civic institutions and a commitment to hold the scales even between different denominations in the administration of civic life. As the BJP discovers its commitment to this notion, it is also under pressure from its affiliates in the Hindutva fraternity to make a decisive statement in favour of the majoritarian consensus. Between attending to international concerns over Jammu and Kashmir, the Vajpayee government in its political self-interest is also seeking avidly to cultivate the favour of the Hindutva lobby on the Ayodhya issue. Since its cultural roots are firmly implanted in the terrain of Hindutva, the BJP cannot quite pass the test of commitment to civic nationalism. But if the coalition government it leads also fails the test, that would seriously compromise India's credibility as a polity governed by the rule of law. And with that, the effort to bring to account outlaw elements who are sheltering in foreign lands would be wrecked.

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