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The sideshow on Kashmir

Published : Mar 28, 2003 00:00 IST

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WITH Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and President Pervez Musharraf in Kuala Lumpur to attend the NAM summit, there was a lot of diplomatic activity on the sidelines. Indian officials had done considerable spadework to ensure that there would not be a repeat of the diplomatic fiasco they faced during the previous summit in Durban. Nelson Mandela, who was the South African President at the time, mentioned Kashmir in the same breath with Palestine and other international hot spots, in his opening address. Malaysia, which took over the chairmanship of NAM from South Africa, was, however, keen to keep bilateral issues out of the agenda. However, the Pakistan President did make an effort to bring Kashmir centrestage.

Before the summit, the Indian Foreign Office had ruled out any chance of a formal meeting between Vajpayee and Musharraf. In fact, the Indian side went out of its way to ensure that the two leaders did not even cross each other's path. The refusal of the Indian side to show any flexibility on the question of resumption of the dialogue process had evidently hardened Islamabad's position. Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri told mediapersons before the summit started that the Kashmir issue could not be ignored.

"Whether it is Palestine or Kashmir, there is the need for the international community to take a consistent stand. The Kashmir issue cannot be bypassed. The Kashmiri people will not tolerate being sidelined,'' said Kasuri. He said that the "barrage of statements'' emanating from New Delhi in recent months had virtually precluded the chances of an early resumption of bilateral talks. "The two nuclear-armed countries should have talks, otherwise it is like playing Russian roulette,'' said the outspoken Pakistan Foreign Minister.

The Indian side had reasons to be wary about Pakistan's moves in Kuala Lumpur. To the relief of Indian officials, Musharraf was slated to speak before the Indian Prime Minister on the same day. This gave Vajpayee the opportunity to rebut forcefully Musharraf's arguments on Kashmir, though many people have questioned the rationale of the Indian move as it once again turned the spotlight on Kashmir.

The Pakistan President's speech did not make heads turn until he started talking about terrorism and Kashmir. He told the assembled heads of state that NAM should not "allow anyone to manipulate the fight against terrorism to de-legitimise the just struggles of peoples against illegal occupation. This travesty must be rejected with the contempt it deserves.''

He ended his speech by saying that respect for international law should be the cornerstone of NAM's approach to the international humanitarian order. "Past decades have seen flagrant violations of international humanitarian law - in Rwanda, Kashmir and Palestine. This must be brought to an end now. We must raise our voice collectively against genocide and support the international criminal justice system,'' said Musharraf, towards the end of his speech.

It was to be expected that Kashmir would figure in the Pakistan leader's speech. However, Indian officials, in their wisdom, incorporated additional paragraphs to the Prime Minister's prepared speech in order to rebut the General. The copy of Vajpayee's speech distributed to the media only spoke in general terms about NAM and its goals. The newly added sections of the speech said that Musharraf's "strange logic masks Pakistan's territorial designs on an integral part of India. He justifies terrorism by talking of its root causes.''

The Prime Minister suggested that Musharraf should instead delve into the root causes of terrorism in his own country. He reminded Musharraf that the "oppressed people of Kashmir had recently cast their votes in an election, which was universally recognised as free and fair. They defied the bullets of terrorists, aided and abetted by Pakistan''.

External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha told mediapersons in the Malaysian capital that Musharraf was trying to introduce new concepts into the NAM agenda. He said that Vajpayee was constrained to reply to some of the points raised by the Pakistan President. While accusing Musharraf of trying to misuse the NAM forum, Sinha emphasised that NAM should never have a role in conflict resolution among member countries. Kanwar Sibal said that Musharraf's speech showed that Islamabad was "short of vision and long on venom''.

Musharraf, in comparison, adopted a conciliatory tone when he interacted with the media a day after he made his speech. He said that his intention was not to further exacerbate tensions. "We raised an issue of principle. U.N. resolutions should not be used selectively. There is one on Palestine and there is one on Kashmir.'' He admitted that the NAM meet did not focus on Kashmir. "We did not come here to generate support for Kashmir,'' said Musharraf. He expressed the hope that all bilateral issues between Islamabad and New Delhi could be resolved. "We need to address all issues, including the core issue of Kashmir. Our hand is always extended. However, this time the initiative should come from the other side,'' said Musharraf.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Mar 28, 2003.)

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