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The Islamabad spirit is evaporating

The Islamabad spirit is evaporating

Author: M.K. Narayan
Publication: The Asian Age
Date: April 12, 2004

Trading militancy for peace appeared to be the dominant sentiment in Islamabad in January this year. The Islamabad Declaration and the joint statement of Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Musharraf seemed to signal a new esprit de corps in South Asia. Fears were expressed even then that this might prove to be another futile attempt, but a glimmer of hope was provided by certain utterances of President Musharraf, wherein he seemed to make significant departures from Pakistan's "ritualistic positions" on Kashmir. The impression of a "peace wind" prevailing over the "fog of war" was also strengthened after Musharraf made a pledge not to permit "any territory under Pakistan's control to be used to support terrorism."

Experts have constantly drawn attention to the high cost of the India-Pakistan conflict. In the Siachen sector, for instance, they have always argued that the cost for both sides was unacceptable, both in financial and human terms - estimates are that if the conflict were to last for another five years, it would set back both countries by as much as $1.5 billion apart from the loss in lives. The hidden costs of the conflict are still higher. There, hence, seemed reason enough for both countries to reach a modus vivendi.

Commencement of a dialogue was always seen as the first step towards reconciliation. A successful dialogue, however, depended on the creation of a suitable atmosphere, specially in Kashmir. The bonhomie on display in Islamabad between the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan and President Musharraf, held out hope that a political framework for a dialogue had become possible, and formal negotiations on a range of bilateral issues would now commence. The road map sketched by the foreign secretaries seemed to confirm this.

The "Islamabad spirit" is, however, proving to be highly evanescent. Within a short time the feel-good atmosphere seems to have evaporated. Certain aspects viz. a comprehensive ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control, the international border and the agreed ground position line in Siachen, have endured, but the India-Pakistan discourse has all of a sudden become very strident. Sceptics who voiced apprehensions that the political thaw would not last and cynics who pointed out that talks between India and Pakistan always stalled on the issue of Kashmir appear prophetic.

The shift has become even more palpable of late. There was an unstated premise that neither side would discomfit the other by raising controversial issues. India had avoided blaming Pakistan for the "jihadi" violence in J&K and did not demand that Pakistan dismantle the "jihadi" training camps on its soil. It also maintained a discreet silence on the "A.Q. Khan episode." Pakistan no longer seemed to insist on a hyphenated relationship between Kashmir and the resolution of other India-Pakistan issues.

This display of restraint - at least on Pakistan's part - is no longer in evidence. An early manifestation of this was President Musharraf's address (in mid-March and via satellite) to the India Today Conclave in New Delhi. In his address, Musharraf did not pull any punches, insisted that Kashmir was the central issue, that it lay at the heart of the India-Pakistan confrontation, and that it was the source of disunity in South Asia. Stressing upon the centrality of Kashmir in Indo-Pak relations, he observed that confidence building measures "could not outstrip the dialogue process on substantive issues including Kashmir." No leader in Pakistan, he said, could afford to sideline or ignore the Kashmir dispute - a statement that he repeated later on Pakistan Television. On the latter occasion, he also stated that if there was no forward movement on the resolution of the Kashmir dispute when the two foreign ministers meet in August, he would not be a party to the peace process.

Some of the other views expressed by Musharraf in the course of his address also appear controversial. He seemed to imply that it was context that determined whether someone was a terrorist or a "freedom fighter." He appeared to justify the violence unleashed by radical Islamist forces, claiming that Muslim countries were at the receiving end today and Muslims were suffering from a sense of deprivation and powerlessness. He wanted Muslim concerns to be assuaged instead of insisting on their ending violence.

Passing a verdict on where Musharraf stands today, may appear unnecessarily judgmental at this stage. Yet, he does seem to have gone back on the commitments made in Islamabad, and also undermined the "Islamabad spirit." Musharraf's unilateral interpretation of the Vajpayee-Musharraf joint statement appears totally at variance with what the two leaders had agreed upon in Islamabad. Moreover, the shading given to it now by Musharraf is a far from happy one. He appears to make clear that Pakistan would not concede ground on Kashmir. Also that, violence is necessary to leverage benefits for Pakistan in order to attain its goals in Kashmir.

Pakistan's intentions become clearer when linked to certain other events. At the meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Pakistan went out of its way to rake up allegations of human rights violations against India, quoting extensively from the deliberations of the Organisation of Islamic Countries - an organisation known to be inimically disposed towards India. The official-level talks between India and Pakistan, scheduled for April 8 and 9, have also been indefinitely postponed - whether this is on account of Pakistan's unwillingness to open the LoC to transit traffic and trade, or due to "technicalities" not having been sorted out, is unclear.

Questions are, hence, beginning to be raised about the reasons for Pakistan's shift. Is it a safety valve to reduce domestic pressures from Islamist radicals and deflect criticism from Pakistan's "kowtowing" to US dictates, or is it pandering to the Pakistani and Kashmiri expatriate lobby in the West? These latter have strong vested constituencies and powerful western backers. Their solution for Kashmir is to depart from the paradigm of "indivisibility" of J&K, and constitute new entities from the former "princely state of J&K." These entities would have their own democratic Constitutions, as well as their own citizenship, flags and legislatures, with the defence of Kashmir being the joint responsibility of India and Pakistan. Either way, the path to peace and progress in Kashmir appears to have hit a road block.

Within J&K, the situation remains relatively unchanged. Violence has not abated. Whether it is events such as militants storming the high profile Press Information Bureau building in Srinagar during March or grenade attacks on political rallies and security forces during April, patterns of violence show little change. The Centre-Hurriyat talks are in danger of stalling. Two rounds of discussions between Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (Ansari faction) during January and March are yet to produce results, despite a promise to review cases of detainees and institute a mechanism for ensuring zero-level human rights violations. Instead, the boycott call by all the secessionist groups - of the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls in J&K - threatens to rob the current initiative of all meaning.

Detente to near-crisis in a short space of a few weeks does not augur well for the peace process. It is difficult to envisage what kind of forward movement will occur on Kashmir between now and August. If even existing confidence building measures are being dispensed with, the future holds out little hope.

M.K. Narayan has served as chief of the Intelligence Bureau

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