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Give peace a chance

Print edition : Jun 09, 2001

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One can only welcome the prospect of an India-Pakistan dialogue at the highest level with a peculiar combination of exhilaration and foreboding. One would have had far greater confidence in this remarkable initiative if it had been prepared more carefully.

PRIME MINISTER Atal Behari Vajpayee's belated invitation to General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's Chief Executive, for a dialogue is a welcome sign that he is prepared to rise above the intransigence of his more hawkish colleagues and to respond more positively to those voices of reason which have been urging him for some months to open such a dialogue. Nor does a direct dialogue with the highest authority in Pakistan preclude other, parallel dialogues within the nation and beyond. Indeed, as we argued in the previous issue of Frontline, some progress on Track One is imperative for any further momentum on other tracks.

Gen. Musharraf is likewise to be commended for having written back in a spirit of reciprocity without trying to score points. India has made clear its commitment to a composite dialogue on all issues of mutual concern, including Kashmir. Pakistan has reiterated its longstanding position that Kashmir is the "core issue" but has combined that insistence with a healthy willingness to engage in a wider discussion. This combination of warmth and restraint on both sides should be enough for now and augurs well for the future. The issue of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) is likely to provide some anxious moments as the preparations get under way, and to this we shall return presently.

Everyone across the political spectrum should welcome this initiative, and it is in a spirit of expectation and optimism that one should try to think of all the attending difficulties so that ways may be found for overcoming them. We have to assess frankly the very mess of the past many months out of which this surprising initiative has arisen and which is bound to be reflected in the perceptions of the respective parties in the dialogue. Second, there is the legacy of the Lahore euphoria and the Kargil disaster which must be faced squarely, so that miscalculations and overbids of the past are not repeated. Third, thanks to events of the past two years or more, the situation on the ground within Jammu and Kashmir as well as the nature of the insurgency has changed, for the worse. Fourth, both India and Pakistan must address the nuclear issue which has served to institutionalise brinksmanship and irresponsibility in mutual relations. Fifth, a proper understanding of the domestic situation that the respective parties face in their own countries is necessary if we are to appreciate the constraints within which they shall meet and which they should help each other in facing.

Sixth, the failure to have a dialogue with the APHC while excluding Pakistan should not now translate itself into yet another failure by speaking to Pakistan while sidelining Kashmiri voices. Reasonable people might disagree as to how far the Hurriyat represents Kashmiris (and the people of Jammu and Kashmir generally), or who else might be included in the overall dialogue, but there is no escaping the fact that the quest of the people, all the people, of Jammu and Kashmir for both peace and dignity means that they have to be, in one way or another, active party to the dialogue. Seventh, it would be imprudent to start with a search for a final solution all at once, but both sides will obviously have to start moving away from their maximalist positions with a willingness to entertain imaginative alternatives. Even as the respective leaders begin a dialogue, it is best to recognise that the territorial claims of the two nation-states as presently understood by each are irreconcilable, and that peace with dignity is possible only if the interests of all the people in the conflict zones are given primacy over these claims. This is particularly the case because we are fast approaching a point where the situation on the ground may not allow the respective parties to resolve the problem through a mutual accommodation in which there is neither victor nor vanquished.

Let me now elaborate some of these points.

One would have had far greater confidence in this remarkable initiative if it had been prepared more carefully and if the Indian government had undertaken it without floundering around among other dead ends for well over a year. That General Musharraf had come to stay had become clear soon after his takeover, and it brings Indian leaders and diplomats no credit that it took them so long to acknowledge this reality. The bizarre experience of the non-ceasefire with the Hizbul Mujahideen a year ago should have made it altogether clear that if the strongest fighting force among the militants could not sustain that initiative without Pakistan's backing, lesser groupings would be all the more incapable of doing so. Then, the November ceasefire was obviously ill-prepared, subject to dissensions within the government, and had the cumulative effect of shifting the centre of gravity within the militancy towards the most extremist jehadi groups, notably the Lashkar-e-Toiba and also the Jaish Muhammadi and others, greatly strengthening Syed Ali Shah Geelani against men like Abdul Ghani Lone and Abdul Ghani Bhat. Then came the negotiator, the affable K.C. Pant, who was appointed belatedly and undermined promptly, and it took all the ingenuity on the part of the television mandarins to portray Shabir Shah as someone who mattered. The holding up of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) process so as to avoid a face-to-face encounter with Musharraf became unbearably absurd, while pressures to open up a direct dialogue kept mounting from all quarters, becoming virtually an international chorus which Musharraf himself happily joined. Uma Bharati's tantrum over the Sharjah cricket tournament only illustrated the more bizarre depths of all this bungling.

Had the invitation come even six months ago, it would have had the appearance of an act of liberal generosity on the part of the more powerful, politically more mature state and Vajpayee would have undoubtedly occupied the moral high ground. Now, after a chain of policy disasters the initiative has the appearance of an act of last resort for a government that has run out of choices it would have preferred, and Vajpayee is made to look like a hapless giant lurching from one policy failure to another. Instead of appearing generous, he appears to be desperate. That, alarmingly, is the reading much too readily accepted in far too many circles within Pakistan and is likely to undermine the talks when they come.

Worse still, we seem to have learned nothing from the debacle of the bus diplomacy. What could have been a historic beginning of sustained dialogue and negotiated peace between our two countries collapsed into viscious chaos because no preparation had gone into it and something as spectacular as the Indian Prime Minister arriving at the Wagah border in a bus was staged merely to placate an international opinion that had been greatly alarmed by our nuclear explosions. The spectacle was made all the more grand because there was at the heart of it, on both sides, sheer policy vacuum. Any responsible political leader would have recalled President Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem, to make the peace between Egypt and Israel, which had been prepared over several years, in all possible detail. The more recent Oslo process, which did not even yield any modicum of peace or justice for the victims, had taken nine years. Instead of the patience required for preparing a breakthrough, we put all-out trust in that vacuous thing which pop journalism as well as pop diplomacy calls "chemistry", a mysterious thing that happens - or fails to happen - between leaders while nations wait in the wings.

The present initiative seems to have been scarcely better prepared. There is reason to believe that something of this kind was on Vajpayee's mind for a couple of weeks. Even so, on May 22, the day before the ceasefire was withdrawn and the surprise of the invitation was sprung, sobre national dailies like The Hindu were carrying front-page stories saying that an extension of the ceasefire was imminent. Indeed, only a few hours before the final decision was made, Pakistan's offer of talks 'anywhere, any time, at whatever level' had been dismissed as "hollow" in a press conference addressed jointly by Home Minister L.K. Advani, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha. The announcement of the new decisions thus had the air of a deal between petulant partners: withdrawal of ceasefire for the Home Minister, a bit of bonhomie with Musharraf for the Prime Minister.

That the ceasefire was an idea whose time had never come was clear enough, while a direct dialogue with Pakistan at appropriate levels is something that the whole world has been urging. But the two things should have been kept separate. The ceasefire had in any case become a mere dead letter some time ago and a decent interval could have been found quite easily between the invitation to dialogue and the official withdrawal of the ceasefire, for the dignity of Pant if nothing else. As it is, Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdus Sattar gets the chance to say, and to sound plausible when he says, that invitation to Musharraf in one breath and withdrawal of even the symbolism of a ceasefire amounts to 'one step forward, two steps back.'

One therefore welcomes the prospect of an Indo-Pak dialogue at the highest level with a peculiar combination of exhilaration and foreboding. Exhiliration because it seems conceivable that the forces for peace have now become strong enough, in the two countries and internationally to turn this visit into the beginning of an irreversible peace process. But the government is internally so divided that it seems unable to sustain any decision whatever, be it the issue of the Hurriyat delegation going to Pakistan or Pant's mission, and it seems ill-equipped, therefore, to undertake so complex a process as search for peace within Jammu and Kashmir as well as between our two countries. All moves seem to be short-term and merely tactical. This propensity is inherent in the instability of the NDA government as well as personal rivalries within the Bharatiya Janata Party. Furthermore, even so recent a development as India's sudden turnabout on the issue of the United States' National Missile Defence (NMD) proposals seems to suggest that major initiatives are undertaken without due deliberation or sense of long-term consequences for India itself. Would such a government have the nerve and the competence to break fresh ground on matters more complicated and emotionally charged? One doubts it.

On the face of it, a meeting between Vajpayee and Musharraf would appear to have been prepared, as some marriages are said to be, in heaven. We have, on the one hand, a legendary swayamsevak of 60 years' standing, whom the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) dare not entirely undercut since he is uniquely responsible for delivering so much of the pseudo-liberal urban middle class to it and without whose helmsmanship the BJP would have never been able to form the government in the first place. The degree of his leverage rivals that of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Even the fact that his long innings is drawing to a close would have us believe that he just might play the last couple of balls beyond the boundary. Musharraf, on the other hand, is Chief Executive and the Army chief all at once. Nor is he a chance soldier. Rather, he made a successful coup against a man who had wrecked the judiciary, then harrassed one Army chief so much that he died on the job and despatched the next into the twilight on a whim. Nawaz Sharif had tried to do the same to Musharraf but Musharraf was prepared.

Today, his grip on the Army seems stronger than ever, having made some of the key top appointments very much to his own satisfaction. He is also poised to appoint himself President of the country in a new dispensation, having neutralised Nawaz Sharif as well as Benazir Bhutto so that their respective parties are rushing around like headless chicken. Sharif's erstwhile party has actually been carved into two while Musharraf has obliged the Saudi royal family by allowing Sharif, their errand boy, to leave the country and settle in its domains. Benazir is so much at bay that despite the reprieve she recently received from the Supreme Court, she is still afraid of getting prosecuted for other misdeeds and dare not leave her sanctuary in Dubai and return to Pakistan. Musharraf is, in short, the right man to talk to.

Many Pakistanis I have met seem to believe that Vajpayee is their best bet, precisely because of his RSS affiliation and his unique personal place in the BJP. Nixon was the one who made peace with China, they keep reminding me. For our part, our best chance would seem to be with a Pakistani leader who is secular and liberal by temperament, a military man to the core, on excellent terms with the intelligence establishment, and who has devised for himself a brand new political system designed for absolute power exercised from the top. India itself has done much to give him the reputation, important in the Islamicist circles in Pakistan, as the man who had reservations about Lahore and therefore gave us Kargil. Some might even surmise that real peace shall come only when the RSS negotiates it with the Pakistan Army.

The problem is that both Vajpayee and Musharraf have to tread carefully within their respective institutions. On the issue of a meeting with Musharraf, Vajpayee can gain Advani's consent by letting him call off the ceasefire but it is unlikely that he could deliver on more substantive matters, even if he were so inclined, especially now that his health is failing so badly and the coalition he put together is tottering more or less irretrievably. Would Vajpayee have the vision to recognise that a point is fast approaching, thanks to the political intransigence and level of state terror over the past decade, when they may not find many takers within Kashmir even for the sort of autonomy promised even in Article 370, which is at any rate anathema to the RSS and its progeny? Even if he were to arrive at such a recognition, would he be able to bring his colleagues along? That would seem improbable. Vajpayee may well have succeeded in delivering a cross-section of the liberals to the RSS but he can hardly deliver the RSS to the peace lobby. Indeed, RSS or no RSS, there are few enough outside the active peace lobby who dare entertain such a thought.

Ditto Musharraf. The tragedy of the current situation in the Pakistan Army is that its Islamicist wing shall give us no peace at all, on any terms whatever, short of a jehadi victory, but the liberal wing, which Musharraf represents, dare not do so for fear of being set aside. This liberal wing has a peculiar, and probably fatal, relationship with the Islamicist wing within the Army and the broad Islamicist and jehadi forces in Pakistani society at large. This wing sees itself becoming increasingly a minority within the Army itself, as the jehadi current envelopes more and more of its lower ranks and rises through the higher ranks right up to the highest echelons. That accounts for the caution, even cowardice, of this liberal wing. But then, the distinction is not quite so sharp. Islamism now permeates so much of the lived culture within the armed forces that there is much traffic between the two poles. Finally there is also an even more fundamental constraint, namely that the jehadis, in all their variety, have now become so much the instrument of Pakistan's policies in relation to its neighbours that even if secular officers within the Army feel threatened by them they dare not take any decisive step against the jehadis. That, then, is Musharraf's dilemma: he is a secular officer who functions within a policy frame which relies crucially on the jehadis. That saving the Valley from the jehadis is itself necessary for restoring peace, civility and dignity to the people of Jammu and Kashmir is not something he has given any indication of comprehending. Or, maybe, he lacks the courage - which, in practical terms, comes to the same thing.

Such, then, are a couple of the more intractable problems far beyond the question of supporting or not supporting the initiative. Conditions must of course be obtained for the dialogue to go on, whatever the constraints. In the longer run, however, there are two preliminary preconditions without which peace shall not be even a flicker on the horizon. There has to be constituted in Pakistan a political authority which dares to stare down and disarm the jehadis on its own territory, shuns using such elements as instruments of policy in relation to its neighbours, and, to the extent that its intervention in the Valley is a fact of life, actively participates in creating there a civic, secular order free of irredescent religious zealotry; I will believe General Musharraf the day he publicly dissociates himself from the activities of the Lashkar-e-Toiba in the Valley. Conversely, there has to arise in India a corresponding political authority which is willing to tone down the legalistic niceties of the Instrument of Accession, addresses the aspirations that underlie the slogans of 'azaadi', and rethinks the contours of 'Autonomy' as it has been on offer in the past, the many violations of it in the past, and the modifications in the very conception of it that might be necessary to address the current situation in Jammu and Kashmir as a whole.

If Prime Minister Vajpayee and General Musharraf are serious about laying the foundations for a long-term process that would eventually give us lasting peace, they should seek each other's help in this matter. That there is a massive indigenous insurgency is a fact; that Pakistan mercilessly abets it and seeks to transform it in its own favour is also a fact; that the lines between the two are now entirely blurred is a further fact. This whole tangle cannot be undone without cooperation. In the world of realpolitik Pakistan shall not give up the jehadis as an instrument of policy unless it is assured that India is genuinely interested in a visionary settlement for the people of Jammu and Kashmir that goes far beyond the existing territorial dispensations. Conversely, India cannot be realistically expected to let up what amounts to a military occupation of the Valley unless Pakistan withdraws much of the terror it sponsors. This vicious circle can only be broken through measured withdrawals that are calibrated reciprocally.

That should be the medium-term objective, short of a move toward a final solution, and if that objective is adopted any number of interim steps become possible. The two countries can take credible joint measures to address the whole range of issues related to the nuclear dimension and to eliminate the threat of a nuclear stand-off. As the level of infiltration from Pakistan declines and India undertakes a corresponding withdrawal of its security forces first from the field and then from the state, safe routes and check-points can be established for the local people to start travelling across the Line of Control (LoC). Both sides can recognise that the historic land of Kashmir, on both sides of the LoC, is internally as diverse in ethnic and religious terms as Pakistan or India and that instead of suppressing that diversity or creating permanent divisions among these fraternal peoples, both countries have a stake in helping devise political structures that respect that diversity. In India, surely, we never tire of talking about 'unity in diversity' and enlightened opinion in Pakistan thinks of that country as a multinational state. There is no reason why the same principle should not apply to Jammu and Kashmir and, in deed, to the whole of that historic civilisation on both sides of the LoC. Any number of interim steps can be taken for ensuring that kind of civil, secular 'unity in diversity' as part of the ultimate solution.

Central to all this is the issue of the people of Jammu and Kashmir being able to represent themselves. This question too needs to be divided into two time-frames. The first is the immediate perspective of the Musharraf visit. The aim here should be merely to make a beginning, not press any of the substantive issues too much, lay the foundations of future dialogue and minimise those areas of dissension that have the potential for undermining the goodwill that both sides are wanting to build. Pakistan's stand on the issue of the APHC in this immediate context seems excessive and disruptive. At the end of a high-profile interview to India Today (June 4, 2000) Abdus Sattar was asked: "So what according to you will be the number one priority in the talks?" He replied: " The greatest need is to lend an ear to what the Kashmiri people are saying. That will be our number one priority." It takes no great acumen to see that he is referring to the Hurriyat. Would he entertain the idea that the voice of Farooq Abdullah, the democratically elected Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, is also a key component of "what the Kashmiri people are saying"? Would he be willing to invite a delegation of Kashmiri Pundits alongside the Hurriyat? Would he welcome a multi-religious Kashmiri voice? Would he be willing to concede that 'Kashmir' is not just the Valley but the whole of a vast historic land on both sides of the LoC? Even the term 'Azad Kashmir' makes no sense without that recognition, and the euphemism of 'Northern Areas' does not negate the fact that Gilgit is part of this larger entity. The matter of "what the Kashmiri people are saying" is thus very complex and needs to be addressed more carefully and comprehensively, without prejudice against any of the claimants.

As for the final settlement, there is of course, at the heart of the matter, a very mortal and also a very conventional kind of territorial dispute that nation-states are prone to. It is an unfortunate fact of this era of nation-states that lives of millions can be jeopardised for mere miles of territory. Since this is the most recalcitrant aspect of the problem it is prudent at this stage to address it as little as possible, except to observe that in any conduct of politics which recognises itself as a branch of ethics, it should be the people who are made sacrosanct, not territories. Two other long-term issues may be mentioned here, since they have never been a part of the public discourse.

One is that the most important settlement in Kashmir has to be an internal one, among the Kashmiris themselves, in which the governments of India and Pakistan can play a pivotal role and the international community can help but which will emerge out of a comprehensive and civilised dialogue among all the Kashmiris, of all regions and religious beliefs, on both sides of the LoC. But no secular, progressive, democratic and just solution is possible without first putting in place elaborate and careful mechanisms for reconciliation. There has been altogether too much violence and cruelty, too many have suffered at the hands of the militants and the security forces alike, for it all to go away with the magic wand of a legal and territorial settlement. The dead cannot return to life but the truth about the manner of their death needs to be recorded, the guilty named and punished, and recompense offered to the survivors. The Valley shall never be at peace with its own conscience, nor the great civility of kashmiriyat be restored to it, until the Pundits can be brought back to live there with their properties, liberties and security restored to them, and the violence against them accounted for. Sikhs have suffered, migrant workers have suffered, women of all communities have been dishonoured, and the iron has gone much too deep in the soul. We will need, I believe, something resembling the South African Commission for Truth and Reconciliation to heal the wounds. The alternative is permanence of hatred and cruelty, bifurcations, trifurcations, deeper and deeper fissures, and a real settlement infinitely postponed. The initiative shall have to come first from outside the formal structures of government, eventually forcing the state to be accountable, and if such an initiative can in fact be fruitfully pursued that will help the process of reconciliation in Kashmir but will also strengthen civil society in both India and Pakistan as well, against arbitrary power of the states and freelance crusaders alike.

Finally, the process of settling the territorial dispute and giving the dead a decent burial would have to be combined with the recognition of the shared responsibility on part of the two countries to compensate all the populations on the two sides of the LoC for the havoc this dispute has caused in their lives. That would mean a comprehensive programme for economic development, for the construction of requisite political structures, for repairing the social fractures, for rehabilitation of populations that have been evicted from their ancestral homes and properties, and compensation for families that have suffered at the hands of either the militants or the respective government forces - and all this as a joint responsibility of the two governments. In taking joint responsibility for the people of the historic land of Kashmir we may learn how to cooperatively build our fraternal countries.

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