Kashmir as the roadblock

Print edition : October 08, 2004

Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri (right) with his Indian counterpart K. Natwar Singh prior to the talks at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi, on September 5. - V. SUDERSHAN

The message Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri brought when he came for talks is that all major commercial deals will remain pending until New Delhi decides to discuss Kashmir seriously.

THE visit of Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri to New Delhi last fortnight for talks with his Indian counterpart, K. Natwar Singh, is a positive indication that both sides are still determined to continue with the dialogue process initiated at the beginning of the year. Islamabad has been signalling for quite some time now its unhappiness with the slow progress on the Kashmir issue. Indian officials on their part have criticised the "unifocal" approach of the Pakistani side.

Strong statements had emanated from Islamabad and New Delhi before Kasuri landed for talks on Indian soil. Indian officials focussed on what they described as Islamabad's unwillingness to curtail "cross-border terrorism" fully. Just before the Foreign Ministers' talks were to begin, there were stories prominently displayed in the Indian media about an increase in militant activity in Jammu and Kashmir, fuelled by cross-border terrorism. Indian Intelligence agencies, on the other hand, have confirmed that infiltration from across the Line of Control (LoC), in comparison to recent years, has been the least this year. The months between June and September 2004 have shown a dramatic decline in contrast to the corresponding period in the preceding years.

The differing official views came into the open when the two Foreign Ministers addressed a joint press conference after the conclusion of the talks. Natwar Singh, while emphasising New Delhi's commitment to take the dialogue process forward, said that cross-border infiltration remained "a serious concern". Kasuri, who is known for his forthright style, said that he conveyed to the Indian External Affairs Minister his country's concerns about "the human rights situation in Kashmir". In his opening remarks to the assembled media, Kasuri said "that regardless of the word that we use and the gloss that we put, we are all aware of what has been the cause of perpetual tension between our two countries and what has caused three wars between us and a near war in 2002. And that was the issue of Jammu and Kashmir". Kasuri, however, took care to emphasise that Pakistan was willing to discuss other substantive issues that form part of the composite dialogue process agreed upon by the two countries and assured New Delhi that Islamabad did not attach any pre-conditions and would let the dialogue process continue.

Natwar Singh admitted that the two sides continued to have differences on some "difficult" issues but stressed the need to move forward in other areas. In this context, he mentioned the proposed gas pipeline project involving Iran, Pakistan and India, citing the importance of "energy cooperation" for the benefit of the entire region. He also said that New Delhi was discussing the issue of Kashmir in a frank manner while "respecting each other's views". The Pakistan Foreign Minister said that more meetings were needed between the two sides to discuss nuclear and related issues. Even on long-pending territorial matters such as Tul Bul, Sir Creek and Siachen, there was minimal progress. It was obvious from the outset that nothing substantial would emerge out of the talks. Both sides would only concede that there was "incremental progress" after the latest round of talks.

Both sides had agreed to reopen their consulates in Karachi and Mumbai earlier in the year, but from available indications the people of both countries will have to travel to their respective capitals for quite some time to get their visas issued. Kasuri said that the Indian side had still not identified a suitable location for the Pakistani consulate in Mumbai. New Delhi had earlier turned down Islamabad's request for the handover of "Jinnah House" in Mumbai.

The joint statement released two days after the conclusion of the talks spelt out 13 areas in which the two countries claimed to have made progress. The points listed included the resumption of the Munabao-Khokrapar rail link and advance notification about missile tests. A high-level committee will be set up to sort out contentious trade issues. A joint survey will be conducted in the Sir Creek area to mark out a mutually acceptable international boundary. Officials of the two sides will also be meeting to sort out the technicalities regarding the proposed Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service. Pakistani officials are optimistic about the service starting soon, though they say that there is no question of Indian passports being recognised along a disputed border. They also emphasise that the bus service is only for Kashmiris.

On the Siachen issue, there seems to be some sort of a stalemate. After the Defence Secretaries of both countries met in August, a joint statement was issued in which both sides agreed to discuss modalities regarding disengagement and re-deployment of their troops from the glacier. According to Pakistani sources, the Indian side is now insisting on bringing in "extraneous issues" and wants Islamabad to recognise formally the present location of the Indian troops on Siachen. "The proposal for demilitarising Siachen is an implementable proposal. Why bring in new arguments?" asked a senior diplomat.

The diplomat also was of the view that the issues of Wullar and Sir Creek can be resolved only through international arbitration. He pointed out that on previous occasions the two sides had solved issues through arbitration. "The Rann of Kutch issue was settled through arbitration. Sir Creek remains part of the Rann of Kutch. The map scale of the disputed Sir Creek is also too small and the border is drawn with thick ink," said a Pakistani official. Pakistan seems to be in no hurry to give India the most favoured nation (MFN) status. Islamabad wants to set up a high-level technical committee to discuss the issue. "We are not asking for the U.S. or the U.K. to arbitrate. We are only asking for a tribunal to be set up." It is therefore evident from the posture now being adopted by Islamabad that progress on easily solvable issues will be slow unless India gives more priority to the Kashmir issue. President Pervez Musharraf, strongly reiterated in the first week of September that Kashmir would remain the top priority for Pakistan. On previous occasions, Pakistani officials have stated that all the remaining issues on the agenda could be solved in no time once New Delhi starts addressing the Kashmir issue seriously.

However, both sides seem sincere in their attempts to foster more "people-to-people contacts". The Pakistani side was quick to accept the Indian suggestion of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) probationers visiting Pakistan every year. Islamabad has also given its assent to a bus service between Amritsar and Nankana-Sahib (Pakistan), religious centres of Sikhs. During the recent ministerial talks, the Pakistani side suggested the substitution of the Delhi-Lahore bus service with a service between Amritsar and Lahore. Pakistani officials are of the view that such a service would be more convenient and cheaper for most travellers.

THE Pakistani side has been suggesting that one way to break the impasse over Kashmir is for both countries to "name high representatives" to kick-start the process. There are reports that Pakistan's National Security Adviser, Tariq Aziz, and his Indian counterpart, J.N. Dixit, are engaged in secret parleys after the recent meeting of the Foreign Ministers. Both New Delhi and Islamabad remain tight-lipped about the alleged meetings between Aziz and Dixit. It is, however, clear that the Pakistani side wants some urgent forward movement on the Kashmir issue when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets President Musharraf in New York in late September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session. The new Pakistan Prime Minister, Shaukat Aziz, will also be visiting New Delhi in November, in his capacity as the Chairman of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Pakistani officials want Kashmir to figure prominently in the high-level talks to be held in the next two months.

Pakistani officials are now saying openly that New Delhi is only "playing for time so as to maintain the status quo in Kashmir". This attitude, they say, puts their government in a bad situation domestically. The Musharraf government has cracked down on terrorism for a variety of reasons. Pakistani officials point out that the man who almost succeeded in the assassination attempt against Musharraf late last year was a Kashmiri militant. Islamabad has been sending strong signals that it is willing to be flexible on the Kashmir issue, provided the Indian side takes into consideration the entire gamut of Kashmiri public opinion. Pakistani officials say that the argument that elections have been held in Kashmir and therefore there is no need to get Kashmiris involved in the peace talks is not a valid argument. "Elections were also held during British rule in the Indian subcontinent," said a Pakistani official. He said that the two sides would soon have to resolve the issue of "how to discuss Kashmir and to get Kashmiris involved. These talks will have to take place within a reasonable time frame".

Pakistani officials are also not too optimistic about the proposed gas pipeline from Iran to India materialising any time. They say that the ambitious pipeline is a trilateral, stand-alone project. According to the officials, the Pakistani people can be persuaded to accept the project as a "pipeline of peace". Islamabad can also earn revenues amounting to $150-200 million annually. Pakistani officials stress that the amount that Pakistan could earn from the proposed pipeline is not humongous, as is being projected by New Delhi. They also say that New Delhi is insisting on MFN status and transit rights for Indian goods to Central Asia as part of a package deal on the gas pipeline.

The other problem they envisage is the question of financing. It is estimated that around $3 billion is needed and it will take three or four years for the project to be completed.

Pakistani officials think that putting together the requisite international finance for the project will be difficult, given the American antipathy to any business deal involving Iran. If the gas pipeline does materialise, the major beneficiary will be India. Piped gas is 30 per cent cheaper than compressed natural gas (CNG). The sub-text in the message from Islamabad is that all major commercial deals will remain pending till New Delhi decides to talk about Kashmir seriously.

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