Turning over a new leaf

Print edition : January 16, 2004

General Pervez Musharraf's statement that it was time for Pakistan to look for a realistic solution to the Kashmir dispute points to a paradigm shift in the country's `bleed India' policy and creates an atmosphere of hope and optimism ahead of the SAARC summit in Islamabad.

in Islamabad

Commander of the Pakistan Rangers Colonel Shair Zaman escorts his Indian counterpart, Commandant of the Border Security Force Colonel Darbara Singh, for a meeting at the Wagah border on December 20.-K.M. CHAUDARY

AS the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit approaches, developments on the India-Pakistan front are moving at a pace unimaginable just a year ago. But while there is an element of uncertainty about the summit itself, scheduled to take place from January 4, thanks to the recent attempts on the life of President Pervez Musharraf, the peace initiative of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has acquired a momentum of its own. There is hope and expectation in both the countries despite Pakistan's weak civilian government and the challenges faced by Musharraf and a `lame duck' Vajpayee government in India.

Perhaps this kind of optimism is witnessed on both sides of the divide for the first time since 1971. That the situation is fast changing is best reflected by Musharraf's statement on Kashmir in the course of an interview to Reuters. He surprised observers by saying that Pakistan had `left aside' the United Nations resolutions on Kashmir. The statement shattered a long-standing taboo in Pakistan; it was also considered highly risky given the challenge posed by fundamentalists opposed to the regime owing to its change of policy on Afghanistan.

Analysts in India might argue that the `symbolic' gesture of the Pakistan President is neither new nor substantial. The General had hinted on these lines at his famous breakfast meeting with Indian Editors at the Agra summit in July 2001, but never before had a Pakistani head of state made an explicit public admission that Pakistan could not realistically hope for a plebiscite to end the Kashmir dispute and, therefore, was willing to explore other ways.

At Agra, Musharraf propounded a four-step process to resolve the Kashmir issue, without referring to the U.N. resolution. The process, if mutually accepted, would mean the acceptance of the `centrality' of the Kashmir issue in the relations between India and Pakistan; the commencement of dialogue; elimination of solutions unacceptable to India and Pakistan; and working towards a solution that is acceptable to all parties, including Kashmiris. In his interview to Reuters, he reiterated the approach and, predictably, drew a strong reaction from the hardliners in Pakistan. Subsequent attempts by Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali and Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmud Kasuri to dilute Musharraf's remarks have been insufficient to control the expressions of outrage and accusations of treason emanating from the military, political, and jehadi establishments in Pakistan, who are convinced that Kashmir can be liberated by force.

A sample of the moderate view of the hardliners was articulated by the English daily The Nation. In an editorial titled, `Shocking Flexibility', it said: "For quite some time, the nation has been hearing from its leadership ominous words like the `need for flexibility' to arrive at a solution of the Kashmir dispute acceptable to all parties, without being able to decipher what they really connoted in details. However, the President's interview to Reuters and Ambassador Aziz Khan's interview to an Indian TV channel let the wild cat out of the bag. The President has, in effect, given up the option of holding a plebiscite and is ready to eschew the cardinal demand of implementing the sacrosanct U.N. resolutions for `the sake of peace'. Yes, peace is of great significance and must be the ultimate goal of all sane leaders, but trying to achieve it against the aspirations of the people to win freedom from the yoke of forcible foreign occupation betrays their inalienable right. Also, an unjust peace is no peace, and merely sets the stage for further trouble and misery."

The truth of the matter is that hardliners in Pakistan are fast losing ground. It has largely gone unnoticed, particularly in India, that no political party in Pakistan has raised its voice against any of the confidence-building measures announced by India since April 2002 for the normalisation of ties between the two countries. Yes, they have apprehensions about the motive behind India's initiatives, but even the Jammat-e-Islami, which took to the streets to oppose Vajpayee's visit to Lahore in February 1999, chose to endorse the peace moves.

In the post-September 11 era, there is a growing worry among political parties, the intelligentsia and civil society that after Iraq it could be Pakistan's turn, especially in view of its status as a nuclear weapons state. The common refrain is that it is wiser to make peace with India than provide an excuse to the U.S. and its allies to intervene in the internal affairs of the country.

Ever since the Pakistani government decided to change its policy on Afghanistan within days of the American President George Bush's statement that "either you are with us or them", there has been a furious debate in a section of Pakistani civil society on the need to re-think seriously the Kashmir policy. Its argument is that jehad is no longer fashionable in Western capitals and unless Pakistan reversed its policy on Kashmir, it faced a serious risk of isolation. It is against this backdrop that one would have to evaluate the shift in nuance on the Kashmir issue made by Musharraf in his interview to Reuters. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad and a peace activist, is all praise for the pragmatism of Musharraf while talking about Pakistan's willingness to look beyond the U.N. resolutions on Kashmir in the quest for a solution. "It is true that plebiscite was indeed the solution mutually agreed upon in 1948 and that India has reneged on a solemn commitment. But the passage of five decades and drastically changed geo-political circumstances demand a reappraisal. Today, plebiscite is no longer the obvious way of determining the wishes of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. For example, it clearly excludes a major section of Kashmiris who would opt for independence today but which, in 1948, may not have wanted it.... More frightening is the likelihood of a plebiscite igniting communal passions, leading to horrific Gujarat-style bloodbaths across the subcontinent. Moreover, at a practical level there is no agency, including the U.N., which is able and willing to implement a task that all nations (except Pakistan) see as impossibly difficult. Therefore, to insist on a plebiscite is the surest way of guaranteeing that a bloody stand-off continues," he writes in Chowk, an Internet magazine dedicated to the promotion of peace between India and Pakistan.

Hoodbhoy argues that the change has been necessitated by a failure of the Kashmir policy. "Unfortunately, much of Pakistan's conspiracy obsessed intelligentsia appears eager to believe that the General is merely obeying the orders received from George W. Bush. But the simplistic worldview that everything comes from Washington disallows an appreciation of some critically important, but unpleasant, facts about Pakistan's failed Kashmir policy. One hopes that these considerations, rather than external pressure, have influenced the General," he writes.

There is little doubt that Musharraf's latest statement on Kashmir is part of a series of major gestures aimed at addressing India's concerns. New Delhi has repeatedly complained about continuing cross-border infiltration, a huge terrorist infrastructure geared to engage in anti-India activities, and Pakistan's unwillingness to participate in trade and cultural exchanges. In recent months, Islamabad has tried, albeit under pressure from several quarters, to meet Indian demands. It banned terror outfits such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad once again and in the process advertised its failure to curb them. The parent outfit of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, another militant outfit active in Kashmir, was placed on the `watch-list'.

For the first time in the history of the relations between the two countries, Pakistan initiated a `unilateral' ceasefire, and it has been in place since November 26. After initial hiccups, Islamabad accepted all the confidence-building measures proposed by New Delhi including the ones related to a bus service between Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK), and Srinagar and the revival of the ferry service between Karachi and Mumbai and the train link between Sindh and Rajasthan.

On the economic front, Pakistan spearheaded the campaign for the adoption of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) and is actively engaged in convincing a reluctant Bangladesh to endorse the framework - perhaps with an eye on the SAARC summit. Hardliners in Pakistan are unhappy over the government stance on SAFTA and see it as a major reversal of its earlier position of having no trade with India until the Kashmir issue was resolved.

Whatever be the motives, Pakistan is moving at a pace no one had dreamt of before. The voices within Pakistan urging the establishment to look for a way out of the Kashmir imbroglio is feeble but growing. As Hoodbhoy puts it, time is running out for Pakistan. "Rather than perform another Afghanistan-style U-turn, it should seek practicable ways of settling Kashmir before a solution is forced upon it. In effect, this could mean a preparatory stage in which inflamed nerves are soothed and the high-pitched, decades-old rhetoric is toned down. Subsequently, the Pakistani side of Kashmir and the Northern Areas should be formally absorbed into Pakistan. "Negotiations should be conducted with India on an LoC-plus solution that allows for some territorial adjustments and soft borders, and possibly a 10-mile deep demilitarised zone. While the division of Kashmir is unfortunate, it is better to accept this reality rather than live with endless suffering that has consumed nearly 90,000 lives since 1987," he argues.

However, there is a growing feeling in Pakistan that the country is being made to give in too much without anything in return from India. It is in this context that Musharraf's repeated emphasis on the immediate resumption of dialogue assumes significance. The ground could slip away fast if the feeling that India is extracting concessions from Pakistan without commensurate benefits for the latter gains currency.

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