A SURPRISE OFFER

Print edition : May 23, 2003

That India and Pakistan have moved into a phase of direct engagement after months of futile petitioning for superpower attention is a significant breakthrough.

in New Delhi

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.-MANISH SWARUP/AP

UNTIL one dramatic moment in Srinagar, it seemed that there was no escape from the slough of mutual threat and insult that relations between India and Pakistan had sunk into. In mid-April, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee travelled to Srinagar with a commitment to address a public meeting, the first by a Prime Minister since 1987. It seemed that he had little else in mind than lending his moral authority to the embattled "healing touch" policy that Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had been applying in Jammu and Kashmir. Predictably, Vajpayee fulfilled these minimal expectations, but then he went much further. As he assured the people of Jammu and Kashmir of a future of peace and prosperity, he held out to Pakistan a "hand of friendship".

Major shifts in policy are not made in the impetuosity of an orator's bonding with his audience. But Vajpayee's gesture was totally adrift of the official rhetoric of the past several months. And it had the effect of inducing yet another of the extravagant mood-swings that have been the pattern of neighbourhood relations in past years.

Perhaps with the intent of cooling the inevitable flights of euphoria, Vajpayee chose, on the following day, to restate India's position on talks with Pakistan. At a press conference just before leaving Srinagar, he sought more closely to align his "hand of friendship" declaration with the established Indian position of the last several months: "If Pakistan announces today that it has stopped cross-border terrorism, ended infiltration and wound up terrorist training camps, I will send a senior official of the Ministry of External Affairs to Pakistan tomorrow to decide the agenda. India is prepared to discuss all things, including Jammu and Kashmir, with Pakistan."

It did not take long to see that this was a deliberate attempt to lower the bar for Pakistan. India has so far held that the Government of Pakistan was to be judged by deeds rather than words. Vajpayee at Srinagar seemed to suggest that a verbal disavowal of terrorism would suffice for India to return to negotiations. The reversal of posture was underlined by the upsurge of violence in Jammu and Kashmir that preceded the Prime Minister's visit. And it has been no secret that a verbal reassurance had been conveyed as far back as January 12, 2002, when Pakistan's President and military chief General Pervez Musharraf declared that his country's soil would not be used for carrying out acts of violence in Jammu and Kashmir.

Musharraf's speech that day was widely welcomed in India as a sign of a new sincerity, though the persistence of terrorist violence in the State subsequently diluted early optimism. As the year wore on, India began openly denouncing Musharraf's duplicity and deceit. And the Pakistani General, in turn, responded with a belligerent threat of "offensive defence" if his more conservative strategy of deterrence failed. In a dramatic swing of the pendulum, Musharraf went before the nation on May 27 with a televised address full of insulting references to the atrocities that Indian Muslims and the Scheduled Castes were suffering at the hands of "Hindu extremists". And before the world community, he asserted, quite unabashedly, that Pakistan had fulfilled its part of the bargain, since there was "nothing" happening across the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir.

India relaxed its military posture though not its rhetoric, following the relatively peaceful conduct of elections in Jammu and Kashmir in October. Although ostensibly directed against Pakistan, it was clear that India saw the main audience for its rhetoric in the West, notably the United States. Frustratingly for India though, the U.S. remained focussed on its war plans against Iraq, to the virtual exclusion of all other issues. India and Pakistan were expected to do little else than put out dutiful statements of fealty to the U.S. mission in Iraq, or at worst to maintain their reserve. With evident resentment and obvious inattention to the true sentiments of their domestic constituencies, the governments in both countries did what was expected. The beginning of military operations provided the impetus for another escalation of the rhetoric.

Silence was not an option amid the deafening crescendo of war. So the Indian government chose the policy of infinite equivocation as the less expensive option. Until its belated awakening to the human costs and implications of the war in Iraq, the Vajpayee government, in fact, showed a greater anxiety to hijack the principle of an immoral war to serve its narrow agenda. The principle of "pre-emptive war" - accepted almost universally as illegal and immoral - was eagerly embraced by India, though with a major qualification. In repeated public statements, Cabinet Ministers made it known that their only disagreement with the principle was in the practical dimension, in the manner it had been grossly misapplied. It was Pakistan, rather than Iraq, that was the proper target for a pre-emptive war, said External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha.

Yashwant Sinha's reasoning was spelt out in a media interview early in April. He argued that if the possession of weapons of mass destruction, a lack of democratic political structures and sponsorship of overseas acts of terrorism were the causa belli in Iraq, then Pakistan clearly was a far greater offender, requiring even stronger action. This logic was further elaborated in the parliamentary debate, when India chose belatedly and behind the linguistic camouflage of an ambiguous term in Hindi, to express itself against the war in Iraq.

Defence Minister George Fernandes echoed Yashwant Sinha's main inferences, though he was careful to enter a stronger caveat about the illegitimacy of the war in Iraq. For its part, Pakistan responded in kind, Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad warning India of grave consequences. Playing the moral equivalence card that has brought it a fairly receptive audience in the U.S., the Pakistan Minister catalogued all the grounds that made India a legitimate target. He said: "The Indian aggressive designs were not concealed from the international community. India is piling up weapons of mass destruction and chemical and biological weapons... The Indians committed genocide of the Muslims and desecrated the Babri Mosque. They committed brutalities on Sikhs, torched churches and burnt alive many Christians."

The U.S. proved rather impervious to the reasoning from either side, with a spokesperson commenting that "any attempts to draw parallels between the Iraq and Kashmir situations are wrong and are overwhelmed by the differences between them". India was also strongly urged to "restrain itself from using the U.S.-led pre-emptive war against Iraq as a pretext for an attack on Pakistan". More ominously, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell held out the public assurance that he would turn his attention to the situation in the South Asian region once the war against Iraq was concluded. With U.K Foreign Secretary Jack Straw also weighing in with similar words, both India and Pakistan were seemingly put on notice that their time for mutual reconciliation through dialogue was up. If an agreed peace could not be concluded, then a guided peace would be imposed.

Perhaps it was this uneasy realisation that impelled Vajpayee to issue his "hand of friendship" declaration. Perhaps too, this is the first glimmer of clarity in official thinking to emerge from the fog of war. Evidence had been mounting that the West was not inclined to view India's pleas with favour and, indeed, was more positively disposed to the moral equivalence argument advanced by Pakistan.

As if to underline this point, on April 30 the U.S. State Department released its annual report on "Patterns of Global Terrorism", which documented that 2002 witnessed a significant decline in the incidence of terrorist acts. In all, it claims, there were 199 recorded terrorist strikes in the year, as compared to 355 in 2001. An annexure listing "significant terrorist incidents" provides summary information about 136 such incidents. Astonishingly, no fewer than 67 of these are in India and 59, in turn, in Jammu and Kashmir.

The State Department chose to banish this evidence with an anodyne - almost offhand - reference. India, it notes, faces "a significant terrorist threat", much like the U.S. And the primary source of the threat, it continues, "is the activity of militants opposed to continued Indian rule over the disputed province of Kashmir". Elsewhere, the State Department observes: "Extremist violence in Kashmir, fuelled by infiltration from Pakistan, threatened to become a flashpoint for a wider India-Pakistan conflict during most of the year." But for all that, "Pakistan remained a key ally in the anti-terrorism effort, offering support to U.S. operations in Afghanistan, implementing close law-enforcement cooperation, and cracking down on domestic extremists". Pakistan wins praise for being the third-ranking country (behind the U.S. and Switzerland) in interdicting terrorist finances and assets. And joint U.S.-Pakistan efforts, the report notes, cover the "extensive" gamut of "border security, criminal investigations, as well as several long-term training projects".

IF U.S. mediation between India and Pakistan is to become a reality, then it is inevitably going to be influenced by this quite unique sensibility. And it was not as if the bad news suddenly dawned on India. Ever since the tension with Pakistan started spiking upwards with the attack on Parliament House in December 2001, a procession of Western officials has been travelling through the region to urge responsible dialogue. They have all invariably chosen to withhold explicit endorsement for India's position. In fact, in one particularly frenetic phase of mediation in June 2002, both the U.S. and the U.K. came close to endorsing Pakistan's proposal that a monitoring mechanism be set up along the LoC, to verify that infiltration had indeed ceased.

After initial welcoming words from the President, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, Pakistan lost little time in responding to Vajpayee's offer with a proposal that talks begin without preconditions. The Indian stand on cross-border terrorism, said an official of the Pakistan Foreign Ministry, was an old story. And the best way to meet the interests of both parties on this matter was to strengthen verification mechanisms and procedures along the LoC.

It was now India's turn to turn down Pakistan's proposals, though the official spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs was careful not to close the door on the resumption of talks. Vajpayee made a statement in the Lok Sabha on April 23, detailing what he hoped to achieve from his visit to Srinagar and the fresh overtures towards Pakistan. In an embarrassing, though unwitting, admission that he had been out of the loop on the entire decision-making process, Yashwant Sinha promptly stepped up with statements of loyalty to the "hand of friendship" declaration. He had never intended to liken Pakistan with Iraq, he said - that impression in fact, was quite simply the outcome of a misunderstanding. And there was no basis to suggestions of Opposition parties that U.S. had exerted pressure behind the scenes to bring India back to the negotiations mode with Pakistan.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri sought to push along the possibilities of dialogue by assuring India that there would be no violence to disrupt the emerging warmth. But the onus remained on Pakistan to make the next move. On April 28, Pakistan Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali called up Vajpayee for a conversation that, by all accounts, conformed to a carefully crafted script. Vajpayee did not mention cross-border terrorism and neither did Jamali bring up Kashmir. From Islamabad, there were words "recognising" the scourge of terrorism and "condemning" it. To build an appropriate public mood for dialogue, Jamali suggested, the two countries could resume sporting ties at once. Vajpayee responded with a proposal for a wider range of confidence building measures, including trade and cultural ties.

Meanwhile, the strategy of declaratory diplomacy was being put into play by Kasuri, who once again brought up the proposal for a verification mechanism on the LoC. Going into greater specificity, he suggested that the proposed multilateral monitoring body could be made up of representatives from up to seven countries - the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Saudi Arabia and Iran. India once again demurred, the official spokesman describing the proposal as "self-serving and impractical".

On May 2, Vajpayee made his next move, the first of any immediate practical impact in the new phase of hesitant rapprochement. He informed Parliament that full diplomatic relations with Pakistan, broken off with India's withdrawal of its High Commissioner in December 2001, would soon be resumed. He added that air transport links between the two countries could be resumed on a reciprocal basis. Recalling, with evident passion, how the last half-century was vitiated by mutual suspicion and ill-will, Vajpayee signalled that he intended to invest this phase of dialogue with an added emotional commitment. "Now what happens will be decisive and this will be my third and last effort. I am confident that I will succeed. We want to give peace another chance," he said.

A letter from Jamali followed soon afterwards, assuring Vajpayee of a warm welcome whenever he chose to visit Pakistan. The dialogue could begin on all issues of mutual concern, said Jamali, including Jammu and Kashmir. Kasuri was concurrently suggesting that trade normalisation was an issue on which progress could be achieved, irrespective of disagreements elsewhere. This, of course, is in complete contrast to the stated Pakistani position, which is Kashmir first and then the rest. In fact, this was the essence of Musharraf's interaction with a group of prominent citizens in Islamabad at the time. Though he ruled out the possibility of delinking Kashmir from other issues, he did suggest that unilateral concessions could soon be announced by Pakistan as a gesture of its seriousness in taking the bilateral dialogue forward.

With all the conflicts in perception on the other side and the legacy of dialogues repeatedly aborted, India's response was cordial but careful. Much preparation was called for before a summit-level meeting could take place, said Vajpayee, and an atmosphere conducive to talks needed to be created. This required, above all, that terrorist operations on Indian soil were called off and the infrastructure of the militant groups was dismantled. India is seeking, quite deliberately, to avoid another spectacle like the Lahore and Agra events, which proved futile despite all the hopes they generated. But there is a strong possibility that the dialogue at the official level could begin soon, perhaps graduating towards ministerial encounters in the near future. These tend inherently to be more circumscribed, with the possibilities of dramatic breakthroughs being limited. That is likely to induce a sense of realism on both sides and also restrain excessive flights of public expectation.

It is often forgotten that until the moment that news of the September 11 attacks in the U.S. began trickling in, officials in India and Pakistan had been engaged in finalising plans for another summit-level encounter to pick up the threads from the abortive Agra meeting of July 2001. That effort was called off summarily when India, without so much as waiting for details on the identity of the perpetrators of 9/11, volunteered to sign up with the U.S. in a global coalition against terrorism. That effort to capitalise on Pakistan's discomfiture over its engagement with the Afghan Taliban regime failed. The U.S. was little inclined to abandon its strategic partner from the days of the jehad against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. Nor was it willing to confront the reality that the worst kind of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir was a subsidiary project of the Afghan jehad that it sponsored and funded.

India's plans were thwarted when Musharraf carefully negotiated his way through the shoals of domestic extremism and middle-class disdain to line up solidly behind the U.S. in its new crusades. But a consequence of the early Indian effort to pillory Pakistan as the source of global terrorism has been a more uncompromising posture on Jammu and Kashmir. To this must be added the uncertainties of the political transition that Pakistan is today going through, with its inherently unstable diarchy between the elected National Assembly and the armed forces. In fact, Vajpayee's peace overture came just as politics in Pakistan was plunging into another furious controversy over the limits to which democratic institutions could legitimately scrutinise the armed forces' political role. The National Assembly was threatening to put to vote the Legal Framework Order promulgated by Musharraf in August 2002, as a constitutional device to ensure the armed forces' political pre-eminence in Pakistan. This had been met with the quite blunt threat from the President that he would not hesitate to dismiss the National Assembly if it actually went to such audacious lengths. But in a framework of intense contention between different sections of the political establishment in Pakistan, the legacy of competitive extremism on Jammu and Kashmir will be difficult to live down.

This is by no means the only complication. Recent weeks have seen a serious resurgence of elements from the old Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Musharraf recently went on record with his suspicion that Osama bin Laden, the most sought-after trophy of the U.S. `war on terror', was still alive, perhaps sheltered in the tribal areas of Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai, the Afghanistan President installed by the U.S., visited Pakistan in late-April to discuss the growing tensions along the border. And behind the public effusions about the two countries' shared interests lurk many mutual suspicions and uncertainties. With overarching U.S. interests dictating their relationship, there is little likelihood that these will be talked about in an open and candid fashion. But for India and Pakistan to have moved to a phase of direct engagement after months of futile petitioning for superpower attention is a breakthrough that clearly needs to be built upon in the interests of both their peoples.

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