Clearing the air

Print edition : August 13, 2004

The SAARC Foreign Ministers' meet in Islamabad provides an opportunity to External Affairs Minster Natwar Singh to dispel the misperceptions in Pakistan about the Indian government's approach to bilateral relations.

in Islamabad

USUALLY during meetings related to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), India-Pakistan relations take centre stage. The SAARC Foreign Ministers meet in Islamabad on July 20-21 was no different.

External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh with Pakistan Prime Minister Shujaat Hussain in Islamabad on July 21.-AFP

It was External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh's first visit to Islamabad after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-led government assumed office. Some of Natwar Singh's statements especially his repeated emphasis on the Simla Agreement being the basis of talks between the two countries, did not go down well with the Pakistani political establishment. The Pakistani leadership is yet to reconcile itself to the defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led alliance in this year's general elections. Senior Pakistani officials admit that they had put "all their eggs in the Vajpayee basket". The entire Pakistani establishment, including President Pervez Musharraf, apparently felt that only Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's "statesmanship" would help bring about a lasting solution to the "Kashmir problem".

Natwar Singh, during his five-days stay in the Pakistani capital, worked overtime to dispel the lingering suspicion about the UPA government's motives with regard to Pakistan. Natwar Singh did not mention the Simla Agreement even once in his public pronouncements. He met most of the top Pakistani officials. On his last day in Islamabad he met Musharraf for about 90 minutes. According to Indian officials, the meeting was scheduled for the last day because they did not want the focus to be diverted from the conference.

Musharraf had recently hinted at his dissatisfaction with the slow pace of the talks and the lack of progress on the Kashmir issue. During his meeting with Natwar Singh, Musharraf talked about the need for a final settlement of the Kashmir problem within a "reasonable" timeframe, coupled with simultaneous progress on all subjects, including the "central" issue of Kashmir. Natwar Singh reportedly conveyed to Musharraf the Indian government's commitment to the joint statement issued by Musharraf and Vajpayee on January 6 and to a "sustained dialogue" with Pakistan in general. On returning to New Delhi, Natwar Singh said that the two countries were not in some sort of a race to set a deadline for the resolution of the Kashmir problem.

He emphasised the same points during his two-hour talks with his Pakistani counterpart Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri, and Prime Minster Shujaat Hussain. Natwar Singh also interacted with leaders of civil society and intellectuals. It was evident that certain misperceptions about his views were dispelled during his stay in Islamabad.

The Foreign Ministers of the two countries are scheduled to meet in New Delhi in the first week of September. Both sides are exuding confidence about the prospects of progress being made on issues relating to Kashmir. Kasuri said that he was "a confirmed optimist" with regard to the future of the ties between the two countries. In the coming weeks the two sides will be holding intensive talks on the six remaining points in the eight-point agenda agreed upon in January.

Senior Pakistani officials, quite like many other foreign government officials, are a bit confused about the chain of command in the present Indian dispensation. Pakistan seems to be a bit wary about the Congress party, given the party's track record in the first 40 years after Independence. Pakistani officials and politicians say that the constant harping on the Simla agreement reminds them of the war that led to the dismemberment of their country in 1971.

However, during their talks on the sidelines of the SAARC meet, the two sides pledged to stick to the timetable of the talks. Kasuri said that his Indian counterpart and he discussed in a "forthright manner" the substantive issues of concern to both sides, including that of cross-border terrorism and Kashmir. Other issues that figured in the talks between the two included the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus link, the Baglihar Dam issue and the reopening of the consulates in Mumbai and Karachi. "Jinnah House" will not be housing the Pakistani consulate - a development that has not gone down well with Islamabad. The Indian government is looking for an alternative address for the Pakistani consulate in Mumbai. Reopening of the consulates in the two cities is evidently going to take some time.

The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service could take a long time to become a reality. Islamabad has made it clear that it would not compromise on the issue of passports being used as travel documents for Kashmiris wanting to cross over from the Line of Control (LoC). They point out that the LoC is not the legal border between the two countries but only a ceasefire line. Pakistan wants to revert to the system that was in place until the mid-1950s when Kashmiris could travel freely between the two sides with documents authenticated by District Collectors. Pakistan Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokkar, in this context, suggested the "Rahdari" system being used on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. People having relatives on either side are allowed to cross the border on the basis of documents provided by local officials. The Pakistani side has also proposed that identity cards issued by the United Nations could substitute for passports - which is unacceptable to the Indian side. As for travel documents issued by District Collectors, according to Indian officials, it is impractical to revert to an antiquated system.

Indian officials accuse Islamabad of not being sincere about the proposed bus service and trying to thwart New Delhi's initiative. They say that delegation-level talks on the issue could not be held as scheduled in Islamabad because the Pakistan government refused visas to officials from the Jammu and Kashmir government. "Officials from the State government were involved in the Indus and the Baglihar talks. There were no objections from the Pakistani side then," contends an Indian official.

India while rejecting a deadline for talks on Kashmir, has said that another round of talks is scheduled on issues relating to Jammu and Kashmir. The officials emphasise that there is no political hesitation on their part. At the same time they also caution against expectations of simplistic solutions to the Kashmir problem. New Delhi considers "terrorism" as the core issue between the two countries. Its claim that the "infrastructure of terrorism" has not been dismantled completely has been endorsed by even U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

Islamabad continues to insist that there are no terrorist training camps on its soil. The Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman went to the extent of saying that the U.S. intelligence on "terrorist camps" in Pakistan is as credible as their intelligence on weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq. India's position on the dialogue process is "predicated" on Pakistan's position on terrorism. The impression being given is that India is at the moment easing up on Musharraf. If he decides to be tough, New Delhi has the option of turning on the heat on the Pakistani leader on the issues of nuclear proliferation, democracy in Pakistan and terrorism.

TALKING to Frontline, Mohammed Abdul Qayyum Khan, former President of the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir, said "Vajpayee had the stature" to bring about a settlement. He said that he was not too impressed by the new political leadership that has emerged both in India and Pakistan. He was referring to the fact that Prime Minster Manmohan Singh and Shaukat Aziz are both technocrats. The Kashmiri leader said that despite the lack of tangible progress so far, India and Pakistan should continue talking, for only then would the influence of hardliners on both sides diminish. He echoed the widely held view in Pakistan when he said: "The talks will go down the drain if India does not address seriously the issue of Kashmir. A courageous leadership is needed in India."

On the issue of travel between the two sides of Kashmir, Qayyum Khan felt that Kashmiris would never accept the use of passports for "travelling within our own homeland". He instead suggested: "Both countries should create a small demilitarised zone along the LoC so that Kashmiris from both sides of the divide can meet."

Significantly, Qayyum Khan said that Kashmiris were willing to look at proposals that did not involve a new partitioning of India. "Independent Kashmir also means another partitioning. There is no mechanism to create an independent Kashmir," he emphasised. Qayyum Khan said that the Kashmiri leaders from both sides should be allowed to meet and thrash out a formula for the peaceful resolution of the problem. Such a meeting can be held in a third country, according to him.

MUSHAHID HUSSAIN, former Information Minister of Pakistan, asserted that the dialogue process would not be derailed. Hussain, besides being Secretary-General of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, is a member of the Senate and chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Upper House. He said that the people of Pakistan had endorsed the peace process. As an illustration, he mentioned the effusive welcome given to the Indian cricket team in three different parts of Pakistan.

"Though we had put all our eggs in the BJP basket, the Congress-led coalition has sustained the BJP initiative," he said. He added that the presence of the Left parties and those representing the deprived sections of society had given him cause for optimism about the peace process. "This year has been a landmark year in India-Pakistan relations. The normalisation process between the two countries is seemingly irreversible."

A.H. NAYYAR of the Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad was of the opinion that both India and Pakistan were in the process of "re-defining" their negotiating positions. He felt that the Pakistani establishment was upset because "nothing much is happening in the core", of the dialogue process. The big increase in India's defence budget this year along with the acquisition of sophisticated military hardware such as the "Phalcon" system has also upset the Pakistani government. The government is in no position to keep up with India in an arms race, given the size of its economy. All the same, Pakistan too has had to increase its defence expenditure. To counter the Phalcon, Pakistan has gone in for an expensive Swedish radar system.

Nayyar said that if Musharraf failed to get some concessions from India on Kashmir, he would come under tremendous pressure from the right-wing religious parties in Pakistan. Nayyar pointed out that it was Musharraf who asked for negotiations with India. Nayyar, like many other analysts in Pakistan, feels that Musharraf has very few cards to play now. "Increasing infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir is the only lever he is left with," he said.

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