Fall 2005’s cautious thaw: Is the ‘peace process’ becoming a peace process?

Ever since shrill hostility gave way to an effort at dialogue between India and Pakistan, every little perturbation has been viewed as a potentially fatal blow to the tenuous engagement. The so-called 'composite dialogue' between the two governments, covering a diverse range of issues, has been little more than a desultory series of talks going nowhere, punctuated by both public euphoria and bitter mutual recriminations. However, recent events suggest that the engagement between the two sides may just have become more sustainable and substantial.

If there has been any dominant motif in the 'peace process' between India and Pakistan, it is undoubtedly its ability to generate public mood swings of epic proportions. Though the term is relatively new, the 'peace process'  was properly set in motion in 1997, under the guise of a 'composite dialogue'. The dialogue did not quite measure up to the appellation of a 'peace process', since it descended on one occasion into outright war in Kargil, and, on at least two others, into the possibility of wars in which the use of nuclear weapons was discussed with studied casualness. If 'peace process' continued to be used, it was largely a consequence of both the lack of a suitable alternative-term and of the extravagance of hope bumping up against the compulsions of reality.

But the 29 October 2005 serial bombings in Delhi, which killed over 60 people and cast a pall over the pre-holiday city, engendered a wholly different dynamic. The rush to judgement, so much in evidence in India in the past, was conspicuously absent. Though the pain was deeply felt, cries for revenge and retribution were relatively muted. Much more so than the attack on the Parliament in December 2001, the bombings that hit Delhi the week before Diwali and Eid-ul-Fitr were celebrated in a rare conjunction represented a grave assault on the sensibility of every citizen of the Indian capital. Yet the public reaction could not have been more different than four years previously.

The Parliament attack was widely portrayed as a defining moment for India in its long and arduous struggle against terrorism. It ostensibly marked a transition from a holding operation by the Indian state to an aggressive doctrine of prevention and even pre-emption of terrorism. It resulted in an effort at coordination, in principle and practice, between India and other self-proclaimed leaders of the struggle against terrorism, notably the United States and Israel. Domestically, the attack was used to test the efficacy of newly-crafted anti-terrorism legislation in charging the perpetrators.

In contrast, the aftermath of October 2005 has seen negligible mobilisation of forces and little scaling up of the hostile rhetoric against the neighbouring country. From India's top political quarters, there have been some murmurs of regret that Pakistan is not fulfilling its side of the bargain in curbing terrorism. But this has invariably been accompanied by the firmly-stated resolve to maintain faith in the peace process.

Polite policy
Geopolitically, there have been few recent constructs as delicate as the peace process between India and Pakistan. The engagement, or rather the lack of it, has been imagined in diverse ways by both proponents and opponents, with facts themselves often proving mutable in accordance with momentary compulsions. More than three weeks after the Delhi bombings, the chief of staff of the Indian Army, Gen J J Singh, completed a tour of the frontier regions of Jammu & Kashmir, at the end of which he announced that infiltration from Pakistan had been brought well under control. The militancy in the troubled state, he said, would die a natural death, since it enjoyed little popular backing.

The following day, J & K state intelligence officials leaked to the media what they believed was a more authentic reading. Despite the confidence-building measures in place between India and Pakistan, infiltration across the border and the Line of Control was increasing. The so-called peace process held out little assurance that violence against innocent civilians would diminish. According to top intelligence sources, the reality was that "militancy-related activities" were increasing, pointing to the distinct possibility of an escalation of militant violence in the near future.

The choice between these two scenarios – one so hopeful, the other dark with foreboding – seems to be little more than a matter of inclination. The idea that fact was subordinate to outlook was underlined, if unwittingly, days later by India's National Security Adviser M K Narayanan. Speaking to the media just days after the tragic slaying of M Raman Kutty, the Indian army driver involved in an Afghan road-building project, Narayanan indicated unambiguously that Pakistan had been involved in the murder. The political leadership in New Delhi lost little time in distancing itself from this reading – even if true, it was clearly deemed impolitic to harp on the issue.

This response was in marked contrast to previous years, when any allegation about the neighbouring country's perfidy would have been allowed to hang in the air, further politicising the underlying cause and vitiating the atmosphere endlessly. A veteran intelligence functionary who has been enjoying a second-coming in the national security apparatus since the Congress party returned to power, Narayanan has been known for his canny ability to discern just what the political masters want most. That his articulation of an almost instinctive hostility towards Pakistan did not win him the instant backing of the political establishment, perhaps, points to  significant changes afoot in that domain. After long years of unintended irony, the engagement 'process' between India and Pakistan may now actually be earning the epithet of 'peace'.

New old leaders
If so, the substantive basis remains as flimsy as ever. Just as over the past eight years, the peace process is governed by the agenda agreed between India and Pakistan in June 1997. That deal, between prime ministers I K Gujral and Mian Nawaz Sharif, identified eight areas for discussion, of which two were sequestered into a special category due to their explosive potential for discord. These were Jammu & Kashmir and "peace and security". The first series of dialogues on these eight areas ended in stalemate shortly afterwards.

Since then, the agenda for discussion has been reaffirmed by successive regimes on both sides of the subcontinental divide, most recently in September 2004, when the two foreign ministers issued a joint statement after days of discussion in Delhi. On the issues of terrorism and J & K, that statement offered little more than differences of nuance between the new thinking and the 1997 declaration. Nor, for that matter, did it differ significantly from the Lahore Declaration of February 1999, jointly issued by prime ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif.

The singular difference between the ongoing phase of the peace process and those that have preceded it, then, lies in the character of the interlocutors and their domestic constituencies. As Pakistan's army chief in 1999, General Pervez Musharraf was unconvinced that the Lahore Declaration, with its supposedly 'apologetic' tone on J & K, safeguarded Pakistan's interests. His response was the Kargil adventure: an effort both to regain the Pakistani army's centrality in the political process and to establish a strategic advantage over India. It plunged the civil-military dynamic in Pakistan into unprecedented crisis, effectively choking off the Lahore process.

As president, Musharraf pushed hard to define Kashmir as the 'central' dispute between India and Pakistan. India was unresponsive to such overtures, keen that the talks continue. That phase in the dialogue was cut off with the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, which triggered a frenetic and rather undignified contest between the two countries for the favour of the sole world superpower. That contest seems to have ended in a stalemate. Today, Musharraf is able to flaunt Pakistan's status as a "major non-NATO ally" of the US as a badge of success. But it did not come for free: he has had to cut the army free of its intimate bonds with the Islamist elements in Pakistani politics. Even if India has now been raised to the status of a "strategic partner" and a "natural ally" of the US, it has been firmly disabused of any notion that it can count on superpower endorsement for an aggressive posture towards its neighbour.

The dialogue with Pakistan also counts on a more settled domestic constituency within India. The BJP, which could once have been reliably counted on to veto any talks, is unlikely to create an undue fuss to jeopardise a process that closely conforms to the mould created during in its years in power. Modest shifts in the Kashmiri political landscape may also have enhanced India's comfort level with the dialogue.In Kashmir, democratic choice was once a matter of voting for the Congress or not at all. But today, there are three formations that represent a more serious range of choices, offering modes of political expression other than militancy. Apart from the Congress and the Peoples' Democratic Party, which have ruled the state in a fairly stable coalition for three years now, the National Conference which saw itself as the presumptive party of governance, has settled down into its oppositional role. The Hurriyat Conference, a conglomerate of all secessionist units in J & K, has itself been riven by competing interests, with an influential section favouring the pursuit of the peace process.

Older notions of national dignity, with all of their rigidities, were perhaps giving way to more pragmatic attitudes on both sides. But even so, substantive results were clearly required if the peace process was to be sustained. During a late-2004 Iftaar gathering, Musharraf articulated specific proposals, all carefully differentiated in terms of a multiplicity of choices for each of the state's cultural zones, as it had existed during the British Raj. But the Indian government remained indifferent, preferring to emphasise the easing of contact between people on opposite sides of the Line of Control.

Irrelevant LoC
The easing of border controls was always regarded by Pakistani authorities as a thinly disguised strategy by which India sought to gain access to markets and resources, while making no more than a pretence of reciprocity. But in recent months, Musharraf, in particular, has been expressing enthusiasm for making borders "irrelevant", at least so far as J & K is concerned. The soldier-president has long spoken of the opportunities that he uniquely enjoys to "resolve" the Kashmir dispute "once and for all". The Kashmir earthquake of 8 October afforded him a renewed opportunity to revisit this familiar theme, but first he had to deflect Indian overtures to relax LoC rigours for humanitarian purposes. It did Musharraf's confidence little good that the Indian proposal involved defence personnel traversing the border by both air and land. Early claims that Indian troops had crossed the LoC to deliver relief supplies were rudely refuted. The initial efforts by Indian military planes to transport vitally-needed equipment and stores were rebuffed. It was only after a prolonged negotiation process — and possibly the mediation of certain external powers —  that the first of these planes was allowed to land in Pakistani territory.

About ten days after the disaster, however, Musharraf chose to make India a dramatic offer, far surpassing anything that had previously been proposed from that side of the border. Kashmiris, he said, should be allowed to freely cross the LoC in both directions, in order to partake in the grief on the other side and to be part of mitigation efforts. He then reprised his familiar theme that the dispute could be forever resolved by converting the earthquake tragedy into an opportunity. In short, the LoC, which kept a people apart and made them victims of the rivalry between hostile states, should be rendered irrelevant.

New Delhi reacted cautiously, seeing the effort as an attempt by Musharraf to steal a rhetorical platform it believed to be its own. But regardless, the momentum was suddenly running in favour of opening up the frontiers, since politicking in the face of a natural disaster was seen by both sides as decidedly bad policy. A few transit points along the LoC were soon agreed upon, creating the second major breach in one of the world's most impermeable political barriers, the first being the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service begun in April. If governments on both sides could manage to overcome traditional insecurities and anxieties about losing control, they could do no better than to allow the local people to take over now – giving the peace process the purpose and direction that it has lacked all of these years.

With talks on the composite dialogue to be resumed in late-January, anybody expecting dramatic announcements would undoubtedly be disappointed. He or she could take solace from the repeated affirmations by the political leaderships on both sides, that the peace process is now irreversible. There have, as in the past, been more than a fair number of naysayers, who believe that it takes no more than another devastating terrorist strike to gut the peace process forever. But the evidence of 29 October suggests that there is a deeper commitment which is not quite so easily shaken. And with the people of J & K now involved, new buttresses are likely to be erected against a reversal of course. As of now, the two sides perceive the involvement of the Kashmiri people as a regrettable necessity. They are soon likely to realise that there is really no other credible way of pursuing peace than to leave it to the people with the greatest stake in it.

~ Sukumar Muralidharan is a freelance journalist and visiting professor at the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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