Back to posturing

Print edition : September 15, 2001

Under pressure from religious parties and militant organisations, General Pervez Musharraf breaks his silence and invokes again the theme of 'centrality of Kashmir', with a possible 'second summit' between him and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee approaching.

"WHETHER the talks take place in Agra, New York or Islamabad, progress in the relations between India and Pakistan is not possible without a solution to the Kashmir dispute." Thus spoke Pakistan President and military ruler General Pervez Musharraf in his address to the Northern Areas Council in the last week of August.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. The Pakistan military establishment continues to believe that the Agra Summit failed to produce concrete gains owing to the divide between the moderates led by Vajpayee and the hardliners led by Advani.-B.K. BANGASH/AP

In the same speech, making such a reference for the first time since his return from the Agra Summit in July, Musharraf named Union Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani as one of the hardliners who blocked the proposed joint declaration at Agra. The General's rhetoric on the centrality of Kashmir in the matter of resolving all differences between India and Pakistan was in sharp contrast to the studied silence of the military establishment in the post-Agra phase. It has also not gone unnoticed that Musharraf chose to return to the 'confrontationist posture' vis-a-vis India just a day after Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee announced in Lucknow the possibility of his meeting the Pakistan President in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar went several steps ahead of Musharraf when he chose the third World Conference Against Racism in Durban to indulge in India-bashing. While denouncing the "vilification of Islam verging on racism", the Minister accused India of denigrating the struggle in Kashmir by terming it terrorism and associating terrorism with Islam.

What is Musharraf's game plan? Is he serious about a rapprochement with India, or is he merely playing to the domestic and international audiences? (Of course, the same questions are raised in Pakistan about the intentions of the Indian government.)

The questions assume significance in the context of what has been billed as the 'second summit' between Musharraf and Vajpayee. The meeting in New York is scheduled for September 25. While both sides talk in terms of 'picking up the threads' post-Agra, neither can resist the temptation to use the same old rhetoric against each other.

The latest twist is indeed ironical. In the face of serious provocation from New Delhi in the form of statements from some Ministers of the National Democratic Alliance government and other NDA leaders attacking Musharraf, Islamabad chose not to react. The explanation given by the managers of the Musharraf regime was that they did not want to 'muddy' the waters and make life more difficult for Vajpayee. The military establishment continues to believe that the Agra Summit failed to produce concrete gains thanks to the divide between the moderates led by Vajpayee and the hardliners headed by Advani.

Undoubtedly, Musharraf demonstrated extraordinary restraint. It could be gauged from the simple fact that he consciously avoided giving media interviews. If his secretariat is to be believed, over 50 requests for interviews from the national and international media are pending. And, as things stand, the military leader has decided to keep away from the media for at least another month.

Then what explains his sudden and sharp attack on the so-called hardliners led by Advani? Part of the explanation could lie in the frenzied reaction from the religious and militant outfits of Pakistan to some of the actions initiated by the Musharraf government in the post-Agra phase. These included a ban on two extremist sectarian outfits, a warning to all other sectarian and ethnic organisations and, most important, the decision by the authorities of Sind province to ban forcible collection of funds in the name of jehad (holy war).

While civil society hailed the steps as bold and courageous, the religious parties and militant outfits dubbed them 'anti-Islamic'. They accused Musharraf of betraying all those who were engaged in the "heroic fight" for the "liberation of Kashmir from the clutches of Indian forces".

In no time the Musharraf government back-tracked. The grand plans of the Sind government to rein in the jehadis and extremist religious organisations did not last more than 24 hours. Reports appearing in the Pakistani media state that the military establishment ordered the Sind administration to halt the operation.

The religious and militant outfits view the victory as the granting of legitimacy to their activities from the highest quarters. Reports from various parts of Pakistan suggest that they are now collecting funds for jehad with a vengeance. In appearing to be taking on the jehadi lobby, the military establishment was seeking to send a message to the international community in general, and India in particular. But it proved to be a half-hearted attempt.

Was it not the ticklish issue of 'cross-border terrorism' that led to the collapse of the Agra Summit? In the post-Agra phase, that has been the pet theme of the Indian government. There have been any number of statements from the Indian side on the need for Pakistan to check the jehadi elements if it expects any meaningful progress to be made in bilateral ties.

But this is not the first time Musharraf has backtracked on measures to rein in the fundamentalist elements. The manner in which he went back, within months of taking power from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, on his commitment to introduce procedural changes in registering blasphemy cases best illustrates the point.

INDIA and the international community, as much as the rest of civil society in Pakistan, have to learn to live with certain bitter realities about the 'precarious nature' of the relationship between the military establishment and the jehadi outfits. For a variety of reasons, the jehadi organisations have become a factor to reckon with in Pakistani society. They have successfully, through a mix of oratorical skills and fire power, elevated themselves to the role of defenders of Islam. The military establishment has used these elements from time to time in fighting its battle with India, and will now find it difficult to cut off the link.

Isolating the jehadi elements from the rest of Pakistani society will at best be a slow and prolonged affair. The military establishment in Islamabad is convinced that Kashmir is providing the much-needed opportunity and space for the jehadi outfits to survive and thrive. New Delhi might think this self-serving argument would not convince anyone. But this is the bitter truth in Pakistan.

Not just the military establishment but even a number of enlightened persons in Pakistan believe that Kashmir is at the root of the tensions between the neighbours. It is their perception that unless New Delhi gets down to addressing the basic issues centred on Kashmir, there is little hope for India and Pakistan to co-exist peacefully.

This reality is what compels the Pakistani leadership, irrespective of who is at the helm of affairs, to return time and again to the time-tested theme of Kashmir. As a military leader Musharraf cannot be expected to be any different.

AGAINST this backdrop, what can be expected in New York? To begin with, the very fact that both the leaders have agreed to meet is a positive sign. It shows that both sides are determined to carry forward the process of dialogue despite all the domestic pulls and pressures.

Another positive aspect of the expected meeting is that unlike Agra there is no media hype this time; there are no great expectations on either side. In retrospect, media pressure was to some extent responsible for the disappointment at Agra.

As Vajpayee admitted in the course of his reply in the Rajya Sabha on August 16, "a broad agreement on future talks" was reached at Agra. Of course, Pakistan contested his claim that it had agreed not to raise Kashmir at multilateral forums like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). In response to the manner in which the Pakistan Foreign Minister raised the Kashmir issue in Durban, New Delhi accused Pakistan of going against the spirit of the 'agreement' reached at Agra.

There is no dearth of subjects that could come up for discussion in New York. Islamabad is yet to respond to the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) announced by New Delhi in the run-up to the Agra Summit. New York could provide an opportunity to exchange notes on the subject and make a meaningful progress towards peace.

No doubt, Pakistan continues to harp on the centrality of Kashmir in any efforts aimed at normalisation of ties. India, on its part, could initiate the process towards a dialogue with Pakistan on the whole gamut of issues related to Kashmir. The scope, indeed, is vast if only there is the political will on either side.

If the two leaders do succeed in New York in arriving at some understanding on the agreements that were almost concluded at Agra, it would be a significant breakthrough in bilateral relations between the two countries.

Lt. Gen. Talat Masood (retd.), a well-known Track-II diplomacy expert, pointed out in one of his columns on the prospects of the New York meeting: "The policy of bleeding each other has run its course and is now producing diminishing, even negative, returns. Courageous initiatives, leadership, and a spirit of give-and-take, combined with painstaking efforts at conflict resolution and confidence-building by India and Pakistan, are needed. The task may be daunting but the reward for success is enormous." There is something to ponder here.

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