What next in Kashmir?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

AS India-Pakistan relations, which move in a cyclic pattern, enter one of their friendlier phases, it is heartening to hear voices of sanity in support of peace and normalization between the two countries. It seems that war fatigue has set in and the “voices of sanity” are getting louder.

The futility of attempting a military solution is now dawning on an increasing number of Pakistanis. This is important to sustain the momentum which began when the Indian prime minister extended the olive branch to Islamabad last month, and the peace overtures followed in quick succession from both sides.

It is too early to expect relations between India and Pakistan to be normalized in the immediate future, all the hype notwithstanding. Neither will the disputes, especially the “core issue” of Kashmir — Pakistan’s pet term in dialogue parlance — be resolved right away. The buzz words today are “the long haul”. There are too many hawks on both sides who have been expressing their reservations — if not hostility — about the peace process.

Needless to say, the vested interests, which have benefited from an impasse between the two subcontinental neighbours, will not welcome peace so easily. They have been raising their concern on issues, which for the time being can be set aside. That is because in recent months some powerful compulsions for an India-Pakistan detente have emerged. Islamabad should understand their significance and not attempt to swim against the tide of history.

A sea change has taken place in this part of the world brought on by what has been happening elsewhere. This has made it no longer possible for India and Pakistan to stick to their guns on the issues, which have divided them since 1947. The US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s visit to the region last week came as a significant reminder of the transformation that has taken place in inter-state relations in South Asia.

Why should America now find a renewed vigour to nudge India towards opening its lines of communication with Pakistan in a bid to normalize its ties with it? Why should Mr Vajpayee change the BJP’s tack to project his party’s image as one of peace (if Shekhar Gupta, the editor of the Indian Express is to be believed)? The fact is that there has been a noticeable shift in policy. India which has suddenly dropped its condition of “cross-border terrorism” being stopped before a dialogue with Pakistan can be opened. Mr Vajpayee has also indicated a willingness to discuss the Kashmir issue.

This will undoubtedly be better than having their armies locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, as they were a few months ago. If they cannot enter into a relationship of cooperation and detente, let them talk. Thus they will not have their fingers on the trigger — a nuclear one in this case.

It is plain that America’s geopolitical goal in South Asia today is more clearly defined and the Bush administration is ready to act to translate this goal into reality. America feels threatened by the violence that is becoming endemic in the South Asian region. As it wages its war against the Al Qaeda and the Taliban remnants hiding in Pakistan, there is nothing to stop the US from extending its reach to the militants in Kashmir. Why should it want to tolerate Kashmir as another hotspot in the region?

Arguably, the insurgency in the valley is directed against India. But can the violence unleashed by non-state actors be contained in one area alone? The Afghan crisis since 1979 has amply demonstrated that terrorism assumes a ubiquitous form in the globalized world of today. Hence America obviously feels that it can only root out the Al Qaeda network if the militants fighting in Kashmir are also eliminated. Pakistan can no longer hope to get away by running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.

The Pakistan government must be very clear on this count. It should also understand that its protestations and denials do not change the perception of other parties that continue to link the insurgency in the valley with Pakistan. Hence Islamabad will have to not only denounce terrorism in the valley. It will also have to adopt measures to curb the militants who have found sanctuary on our soil. That the US also means business this time is palpable. This signal was sent across to Islamabad when recently Washington declared the Hizbul Mujahideen a ‘foreign terrorist organization’, which carries grave implications — the most significant being that the US now considers the HM to be a threat to American national security.

By adopting this approach vis-a-vis the militants, Washington is killing two birds with one stone. It is furthering its war aims in the context of the global fight against terror. It is also enlisting India’s support in the wider game of international politics, which it badly needs to counter the growing power of China. Since there is no love lost between China and the Islamist militants, Pakistan will find itself isolated if it does not distance itself from a pro-jihad policy.

Closely linked to this thrust towards the isolation of the Islamists is the emerging political situation in occupied Kashmir. This is working against Pakistan and is bound to leave it without any political leverage in Kashmir. Quite unnoticed in this country, some key developments have been taking place on the Indian side of Kashmir.

The elections held in the state in September-October last year are deemed to have been the first reasonably fair and free elections in the territory since 1947. If there were any constraints, they came from the militants who threatened violence against the voters who would come out to cast their ballot or the candidates who would contest. The party, which came into office in coalition with the Congress Party, is again an independent one, namely the People’s Democratic Party of Mufti Muhammad Sayeed. Although Mufti Sayeed was at one time the Union Home Minister, he can hardly be termed a stooge of the BJP. There is new blood in the seat of power in Srinagar and the chief minister has been playing his cards very deftly.

Since August, a dialogue has been in progress in the Indian held Kashmir between an unofficial seven-member committee headed by Ram Jethmalani, a former Union Law Minister, and the All Party Hurriyat Conference. Although the process is being conducted very discreetly, it has made some headway. Encouraged by its success, in February New Delhi appointed an official interlocutor on Kashmir, N.N. Vohra. In a radical move, the Indian government has even offered to talk to the resistance groups in Kashmir.

With war fatigue making its impact on the Kashmiris, the negotiations stand quite a good chance of reaching some understanding on the political future of the valley. If the militants abandon their politics of violence, the chances of an arrangement being tentatively arrived at are better than they have ever been in the past.

The internal dialogue in India gives the APHC a role in the political process, which it has been demanding all along. It is not assured of a part in the India-Pakistan dialogue. It is most unlikely that the Kashmiris would want to fade out of the picture and let their future be decided by the two governments.

Understandably they want to have a say even in the talks about the talks. They would want to be consulted on the question of modalities to be adopted to settle the future of the Kashmiri people. One knows very well that procedural issues can make a vital difference to the substantive part of negotiations.

In this changing scenario, Pakistan will only put itself at a terrible disadvantage if it persists with its present Kashmir policy. By continuing to support the use of force, Islamabad will alienate the Americans. Insisting on the “core dispute” being resolved before any other issue can be taken up will place it on a weak wicket since the political forces in the valley are now inclined to talk to India directly.

The pragmatic and sensible approach would be to discreetly put Kashmir on the backburner. Let Islamabad concentrate on normalizing its ties with New Delhi. Kashmir can wait. A solution will emerge in due course, though it may not be exactly as we visualize it at the moment.