Significance of the bus accord

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

The reaction to the ‘bus accord’ signed by the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan last week in Islamabad has been a mixed one. While those who staunchly support peace between the two countries have welcomed it as a fillip to the composite dialogue which can now be expected to move forward.

Others who have adopted a hard line on Kashmir feel that the decision to link Muzaffarabad and Srinagar by a bus service will be hurtful to their cause. For instance, the BJP, which started the dialogue with Pakistan and is now in the opposition, feels that the bus will allow terrorists to infiltrate the Valley.

In Pakistan, the Jamaat-i-Islami perceives it as a “ploy” to put the Kashmir dispute on the back burner. The Islamist militants have condemned the agreement threatening to disrupt the bus service because they feel it amounts to all the sacrifices of the freedom fighters having gone in vain.

It is now time to take a rational and realistic view not just of the bus service but also of the Kashmir issue as the two are closely inter-linked. Even those in Pakistan who have expressed staunch support for the accord on the bus service and have advocated the furtherance of people-to-people contacts between the two countries and the two parts of Kashmir bring up the status of the disputed territory as the unresolved issue which should be taken up concurrently with other CBMs in the ongoing dialogue.

What needs to be understood is that the agreement on the bus service, which is a relatively uncomplicated question – peripheral is the word being used by commentators in Pakistan – required a lot of hard negotiations and hard bargaining involving a process of give and take.

The proposal made by Pakistan had been on the table for six months. India wanted the passengers from the Valley to travel on Indian passports which Islamabad would not accept as it would imply accepting India’s legitimate control of its part of Kashmir.

It was finally decided that an entry permit system would be used after the identity of the passengers had been verified. In return for this Pakistan had to modify its condition that only Kashmiris could use this route. It has now been agreed that any citizen of Pakistan or India can travel by the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service.

This accommodation was possible because the talks took place behind the scenes away from the glare of publicity. This has now been confirmed by Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri.

In a press conference on Saturday he disclosed that India and Pakistan had established a “secret channel to avoid confusion (at this stage)”. He also explained why the two foreign ministers had refused to field questions at their joint press conference on Wednesday to “avoid a situation that could lead to a particular self-defeating spin”. This is a sensible approach adopted by the two sides.

History shows that international negotiations on sensitive issues never take place on a public platform or before the media. The negotiations between the United States and North Vietnam went on in Paris for five years (1968-73) before an agreement was reached.

The peace process between the PLO and Israel was initiated after behind-the-scenes talks in Oslo between the two sides in 1992-93. The US and China negotiated on the quiet in Warsaw from 1955 till 1971 before they agreed to extend formal recognition to each other.

In such negotiations before two adversaries can reach a tentative agreement on a broad blueprint they are not in a position to prepare public opinion in their respective countries. But if the details of the negotiations were to be revealed prematurely, public pressure could force them to play to the gallery at home and reiterate their hawkish stand for their domestic compulsions. That would jeopardize the understanding that may be within their reach.

Hence the secret channel on Kashmir between India and Pakistan is the most significant and positive piece of news we have received from the government in recent months. It should be welcomed.

The most important implications of the bus accord are for the Kashmir dispute itself. It would facilitate traffic across the LoC in Kashmir and enable people-to-people contact among the Kashmiris. Until now this has not been possible.

Apart from the humanitarian aspect – divided families can visit each other – it has political importance. The leaderships of the two parts of Kashmir will be able to interact freely which they have not been able to do until now.

Since the Kashmiris are a party to the India-Pakistan dispute on Kashmir they must evolve a common stance on the future of the state. Unfortunately, they do not have that at the moment.

The hard line jihadi groups in Azad Kashmir, namely, the Jaish-i-Mohammad, the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Lashkar-i-Taiba, want the state to accede to Pakistan. The ruling People’s Democratic Party in Srinagar and the National Conference are not resisting the present arrangement with India but want the human rights abuse and violence to be checked and more autonomy to be granted to the state.

There are others, such as the moderate section of the Hurriyat who would also go along with them if autonomy is assured. Yet others like the JKLF want independence for the state.

It is evident that a plebiscite as envisaged in the UNCIP resolutions of 1949 is no longer possible after 56 years when the situation on the ground has changed totally.

Hence the next option is to allow Kashmiri political parties to evolve a consensus or lobby freely among their people so that the one with the largest following can claim to represent the opinion of their masses.

As Mr Kasuri correctly pointed out, the bus service would ease contacts between the Kashmiris on both sides of the LoC and thus allow them to be associated with the India-Pakistan dialogue.

This is of primary importance. Any agreement on Kashmir reached between New Delhi and Islamabad should be acceptable to the people of Kashmir if it is to be implemented. What better way is there of ensuring this than associating them with the dialogue.

Since Pakistan has of late conceded that whatever is acceptable to the people of Kashmir will be acceptable to Pakistan too, it is essential that the Kashmiri leadership be in the forefront in the negotiations.

In this context it needs to be pointed out that India is seeking to negotiate with the Hurriyat and other Kashmiri leaders on giving greater autonomy to the state. Again, it is not for Pakistan to intervene in this matter.

It should be left to the leaders of the state to decide how to respond to the proposals from India. Of course a free interaction between the Kashmiri leaderships on the two sides of the LoC will help since they will be able to work out a common strategy.

Pakistan should use the secret channel to persuade India to reduce its military presence in the Valley and end its human rights abuse in the occupied state. In this, Islamabad can display its good faith by checking infiltration across the LoC which has certainly been reduced tremendously.