Expectations and some worries

Published : Jun 20, 2003 00:00 IST

India and Pakistan are all set to embark on the path of peace once again, but Pakistan's internal contradictions are likely to raise obstacles.

in Islamabad

A DRAMATIC transformation seems to have come over the India-Pakistan discourse in a span of six weeks, beginning with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's `third and final' call for friendship with Pakistan made in Srinagar on April 18.

What else should one make out from the recent threat by Vajpayee to "retire" if the latest peace move did not succeed, though the Prime Minister's publicity managers were quick to accuse the media of "blowing up his casual remarks" made in the course of an interview to a German magazine?

Whatever the facts might be, Pakistan has reasons to be worried over Vajpayee's statements, particularly because it is for the second time that he has chosen to invest such high stakes in a peace venture. The Pakistani establishment is genuinely interested in knowing whether Vajpayee was addressing Islamabad or elements within the Sangh Parivar.

Notwithstanding the doubts and suspicions about the road ahead, the fact remains that there has been a remarkable change in the overall relations between the two countries. From the prospect of a breakdown in diplomatic relations and a military conflict, the focus has shifted to the need to settle all outstanding differences.

Both sides are aware that contentious issues such as Jammu and Kashmir cannot be resolved overnight. Hence emphasis is laid on the need for structured, sustained and meaningful dialogue. There is a realisation that it is a step-by-step approach that is needed and not grandiose summits and dramatic moves.

The new rhetoric of reconciliation has raised expectations of an early breakthrough. A literal interpretation of some of Vajpayee's one-liners gives the impression that the Prime Minister wants to close the bitter chapter of strained ties with Pakistan.

The Pakistani side too seems anxious to take the dialogue process to the summit level. Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri has not missed any opportunity to underline the need to carry forward the peace process initiated in Agra in July 2001 by Vajpayee and President General Pervez Musharraf. "I don't agree with Mr. Vajpayee on his observation about the need for groundwork. Lots of work has already been done, beginning with the Foreign Secretary-level talks in the early 1990s. You can run at 90 miles per hour or alternatively one mile per hour. If New Delhi insists, we are prepared for the latter,'' Kasuri told Frontline.

From Pakistan's point of view, there is one area that stands out as a reflection of its endeavour to further the peace process. Ever since India made cross-border terrorism a major issue of dialogue, Islamabad has never made any transparent attempt to meet New Delhi's chief concern. For domestic reasons, Pakistan cannot advertise the steps taken by it to rein in jehadi outfits. But the unilateral initiative by Vajpayee, particularly in the face of bellicose statements by his ministerial colleagues, has provided the Pakistani establishment the much-needed space to prove its credentials on the issue of reining in the militants.

The Pakistan government has reciprocated India's initiatives with some extraordinary steps. Its decision to ask the militant groups operating from Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) to close their offices and camps `if any' best illustrates the point.

No government representative is willing to concede on record that any directive has been issued to the militant outfits to shift out of POK, because it would amount to an admission of the existence of such camps. When contacted by this correspondent, the Chief Secretary of POK, Shahid Rafi, said, "There are no offices or militant camps of jehadi outfits in POK. So the question of our asking them to wind up operations does not arise.''

Since the peace initiative in April and the visit by United States Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to the subcontinent in the second week of May, there has been a conscious effort on the part of Pakistan to prove that it is serious about not allowing militant outfits to operate from its soil.

On April 28, presiding over an inter-provincial meeting on law and order, Pakistan's Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat declared that banned militant outfits under new names would not be allowed to function. He reiterated Musharraf's January 12, 2002, resolve not to allow anyone to misuse Pakistani territory for violent activities in the name of Kashmir.

Subsequently, former POK Prime Minister and President Sardar Qayyum Khan confirmed that his party would not allow banned organisations to operate in the name of the `Kashmir cause'.

A few days later, Interior Minister Hayat said that Pakistan had decided not to allow the Hizbul Mujahideen to carry on "illegal activities" in the country. Following his statement, the police detained three lieutenants of the Hizbul Mujahideen chief for displaying weapons. For the second time in less than a month, Pakistani authorities restricted the movements of Maulana Masood Azhar, chief of the proscribed militant outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). JeM and Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), another key anti-India outfit, were among the five militant organisations that were banned by Musharraf in January 2002. However, unlike Masood Azhar, former LeT chief Hafiz Saeed has been conducting a high-profile lecture tour across Pakistan. Saeed was even allowed to address a rally in POK, where he blasted the peace moves as a trap set by India.

In contrast, Masood Azhar was prevented from addressing a conference in Peshawar. The meeting was organised by a Muslim religious group called Khudamul Islam, which according to the police is a new version of the JeM. Earlier, he was banned from entering POK.

New Delhi has generously acknowledged the moves by Islamabad. India wants more such steps and observers have raised questions about sustaining the effort in the long run.

First and foremost, it is unclear whether the militant outfits will continue to listen to Islamabad. Assuming that they will, will the Pakistani authorities be prepared to dismantle permanently `infrastructure' that has served its vital strategic and political purposes?

There is a school of thought, which believes that the military establishment in Pakistan has a vested interest in perpetuating the Kashmir conflict as it is the `India factor' that gives it control over national affairs.

Even as tensions on the external front ease with an improvement in India-Pakistan relations, the Jamali government is faced with a serious political crisis on the domestic front. The standoff between the government and the opposition on the dual role of Musharraf is so serious that the latter has threatened to block the presentation of the Budget, which is scheduled tentatively for June 7.

There seems to be no meeting point between the government and the opposition on the continuation of Musharraf as Army chief. At least one senior leader of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six religious parties, has gone on record as saying that even if the crisis led to the suspension or dissolution of the National Assembly, it could not care less.

Observers see the events in the Punjab Assembly as a precursor to similar events at the national level. Jamali is scheduled to hold an all-party `summit' in a bid to persuade them to give Musharraf some more time. Jamali is placed in an unenviable position as both the General and the opposition are unwilling to relent. Earlier, Musharraf had said that while he was conscious of the fact that the President should not be an Army officer, his continuation in the latter post for some more time was imperative in the `larger national interest'.

Although general elections were held in the second week of October last year, the National Assembly has not had a single `normal' session till date; most of the time it had to be adjourned amidst uproarious scenes.

It is an open secret that Jamali was handpicked by Musharraf. However, of late, the relations between the two appear to have strained. This was evident in the manner in which the Prime Minister was `humiliated' over the choice of the country's envoy to India. In the course of a television interview, Jamali declared that he had `cleared' the file nominating Riaz Mohammad Khan, currently Ambassador in China, as the new High Commissioner to New Delhi.

Within hours, the Foreign Office put out a statement through the state-run news agency that no decision had been taken on the matter. Ultimately, Foreign Office spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan was nominated as the High Commissioner. The choice is excellent considering that he is known for his cool demeanour and scholarly pursuits. A thorough gentleman, Ahmed Khan had refused to be provoked on India-related matters even at the height of tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad. As the peace process moves forward, Khan would prove to be a great asset for Pakistan.

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