VIEW: A positive gesture wrapped in an unhelpful pronouncement —Abbas Rashid
President Musharraf’s proposals and the invitation to debate the Kashmir issue is a signal as much to the home audience as to the external one that Pakistan is willing to consider more than one option for a settlement. Similarly, the troops withdrawal from Kashmir, limited as it may be, is surely a significant counterpoint to the huge military mobilisation only two years ago
The withdrawal of Indian troops from Kashmir that got underway earlier this week is a significant move. Up to 40,000 troops are scheduled to be withdrawn. This may be seen as close to peanuts by some, given the Indian military presence on the ground estimated at well over half a million troops. But as a symbolic gesture it is a welcome one.
The timing of the withdrawal suggests that the gesture is aimed at both of the other two parties to the dispute: the Kashmiris and Pakistan. The announcement preceded the first visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Srinagar and got under way only days before the scheduled visit by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to New Delhi.
Mr Singh was careful to reiterate, in line with the stated Indian position, the linkage between possible further troop withdrawals and a reduction in cross-border terrorism. Ironically, hours before his plane landed at Srinagar airport Indian security forces were engaged in a fire-fight with militants near the site of his scheduled address. Inevitably, as the withdrawal proceeds, such attacks are likely to increase. But for India to allow these to derail the peace process simply means according the militants a veto over it.
Last month President Pervez Musharraf had suggested that all sides approach the Kashmir issue from a fresh perspective. His roadmap comprised broadly of identification of different regions in both parts of Kashmir, demilitarisation and a change in their status - indicating joint or UN control, etc. The package got a cold reception from New Delhi on the grounds that it had not received anything formally on these lines from Pakistan and hence a response was not warranted.
In what might be construed as an informal response we now have the statement made in Srinagar by the Indian prime minister: “I have made it clear to President Musharraf that any redrawing of the international border is not going to be acceptable to us.” Which is to say that nothing other than converting the Line of Control (LoC) into an international border would be acceptable to India. That solution remains unacceptable to Pakistan. Prime Minister Singh’s statement is unhelpful in that it comes on the eve of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz’s scheduled visit to India at a critical point in the process of the composite dialogue between the two countries.
On a positive note, the Indian prime minister said in Srinagar he was open to talks with all Kashmiri groups. But, a lot depends on how inclusive this ’internal’ dialogue is and how much progress is made on the ground, as it proceeds. For, such promises made in the past by successive governments in New Delhi have not added up to much. Underlining the primacy of the development track is the $5.3 billion ‘economic revival plan’ announced by the prime minister in Srinagar. This is certainly good news for the people of Kashmir whose sufferings have been exacerbated due to the economic deprivation engendered by the violence in the region. The danger is that a massive infusion of funds into the state may be seen as a way of buying peace and averting the difficult but necessary political engagement with the parties, including the militant groups that are central to a long-term solution of the Kashmir issue.
It is important to keep in mind that there are signs of movement along the peace track even as a deadlock remains in place over long-held positions. President Musharraf’s proposals and the invitation to debate the Kashmir issue is a signal as much to the home audience as to the external one that Pakistan is willing to consider more than one option for a settlement. It is in line with his earlier important declaration to the effect that Pakistan was willing to go beyond the UN resolutions as long as a solution was acceptable to all the three parties to the dispute. Similarly the troops withdrawal from Kashmir, limited as it may be, is surely a significant counterpoint to the huge military mobilisation only two years ago.
Meanwhile, India’s former minister for state for external affairs Salman Khurshid has generated some debate on both sides of the border by suggesting at the New Delhi conference of the South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA) that elements of the Irish peace agreement may be of relevance to the resolution of the Kashmir issue. A quick response from the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) suggested, predictably, that the element of self-determination is what appealed most to its leaders. Pakistan could go along with that. But, would India?
Clearly what Mr Khurshid had in mind was the other key dimension of the Good Friday agreement which pertains to conflict transformation through a change in context and dynamic. The SAARC countries, he suggested, could soften their boundaries like the European Union and this will negate the context for the dispute. This is an uphill task and given India’s somewhat rocky relationship with virtually all its neighbours, it has a key role to play in making this come about.
Yet, there are elements to the agreement that need to be seriously considered: not least, the centrality accorded to those most affected. In this case the Kashmiris. In the given situation, the immediate context that needs to be transformed is that of the Kashmiris themselves. Reducing the presence of military and paramilitary troops in Kashmir is a start. This could be followed up by withdrawing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). India has gained little by not allowing the APHC leaders to visit Pakistan. That the Indian home minister Shiv Raj Patil has now indicated his willingness for such a visit to go ahead is a positive sign. As important is the opening of intra-Kashmir channels of communication and trade for shared perspectives and a changed dynamic. It is time, for instance to finally get the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus service rolling. If, as reported, a bus service between Jammu and Sialkot is also on the cards, so much the better.
Abbas Rashid is a freelance journalist and political analyst whose career has included editorial positions in various Pakistani newspapers