The year of Kashmir


Never in the past two decades has the situation been as favourable as now for progress on one of the most intractable Southasian conflicts of our times. We are talking of Kashmir.

The non-aggressive style of Manmohan Singh and the freethinking autocracy of Pervez Musharraf have delivered a remarkable and sustained transformation of the Kashmir equation. The international as well as domestic conditions in India and Pakistan appear to be just right to build on the peace momentum. There is also developing opinion among the public Kashmiri figures in Srinagar itself that it is time to accommodate the concerns of New Delhi and Islamabad in order to break the impasse.

Look at Pakistan first. General Musharraf has shown remarkable flexibility. He has given up demands for implementation of the United Nations resolutions of 1948, a plebiscite among Kashmiris on what they would want, as well as third-party mediation. And the general is throwing up innovative ideas for a solution even as he prepares the domestic audience for a compromise. He is telling Kashmiri separatist leaders who would want out of India, and whom Pakistan had been supporting, that azadi is a pipedream. And Gen Musharraf is engaging with the moderates of Srinagar. In consistently pushing for more engagement with India, the general has gone further than any other Pakistani leader since as far back as, perhaps, Ayub Khan. And so we have come to see the day, for example, when the ruler of Islamabad asserts that Pakistan holds no territorial claim over Kashmir. Gen Musharraf's evolving position may be the result of several factors: international pressure, the search for calm on the eastern front at a time when the Afghan front is strife-torn, the realisation that a Kashmir stalemate does not serve Pakistan's economic interests, or even a desire to craft a legacy as a means to thwart the political parties that he has shoved aside but which will doubtless make a comeback. Whatever be the precise motivation, it is undeniable that the general has pushed the envelope on Kashmir.

A constant refrain among Pakistani intellectuals, as well as liberals in India, is that New Delhi has not done enough to reciprocate the general's gestures. The suspicion that India is happy with the status quo, and is willing to wait it out hoping that the dispute will lose its steam, is not entirely out of place. But to say that there has been no movement from New Delhi's side is not accurate, for the handlers of Indian foreign policy have fought several conservative strands, within and outside the establishment, to engage with Pakistan. They have done this even as militant attacks have continued in Kashmir and in parts of India.

Prime Minister Singh's statement that while he had no mandate to redraw boundaries, the two countries could together make the India-Pakistan border irrelevant was a bold departure, particularly given New Delhi's obsession with creating more fences (much disparaged in these columns). The Indian government has also engaged in direct talks with Kashmiri separatist outfits, albeit sporadically.

New Delhi's motivations in pushing ahead with the Kashmir peace process are not difficult to gauge. South Block has arrived at the conclusion that India will not be taken seriously as a global power if its relations with neighbours remain acrimonious and the region remains unstable. The other reason for optimism in the current context is the timing. Two foreign-policy issues have constantly held India back on the world stage – its nuclear programme and relations with Pakistan. With the civilian-nuclear deal with the US accommodating India into the established nuclear order, Prime Minister Singh now wants to move on the next contentious issue. Addressing Kashmir as the main bottleneck in the relation with Pakistan will reflect well on the Indian government and the prime minister's personal report card.

And what of the Kashmiri? As with Palestine, any people fighting for identity amidst a sense of occupation and made pawns to larger geopolitical considerations will find politics a dangerous game, where compromise can easily be projected as betrayal. The easy recourse to violence against those who espouse moderation also constricts matters. It requires the sheer passage of time – and suffering – for politicians to rise to the occasion, even as the ground realities change to allow space for the moderates.

The Kashmiri people on both sides of the Line of Control have undergone a decade and a half of violence and strife, and are ready for a compromise solution. The overwhelming sentiment for azadi is accompanied by the realisation that independence, defined as sovereign statehood, is not possible within the existing geo-political situation. As for moderate leadership, even while radical outfits continue to operate in various parts of Jammu & Kashmir, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq has emerged as the favourite of both New Delhi and Islamabad as a consensus figure. Leader of the All Party Hurriyat Conference, and presently a PhD student of Sufi culture, Mirwaiz has inherited the mantle of high priest of the valley from his late father, Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq, who was shot dead by assailants in 1990 (see Himal January 2006, "Himal-Panos Roundtable on Kashmir").

The sea-change on Kashmir is reflected in the flurry of activities and meetings that have marked the second half of 2006. Prime Minister Singh's special envoy, S K Lambah, and Gen Musharraf's pointsman, Tariq Aziz, have held hectic bilateral parleys. Mirwaiz Farooq has been moving between international capitals and is in touch with both the Islamabad and New Delhi policy establishments. Even the foreign ministers of both countries have admitted that there has been progress on the Kashmir question. And the broad contours of a Kashmir solution are clear – more autonomy to Azad Kashmir and J & K, on two sides of the LoC, joint control of certain areas, and softer borders that facilitate greater contact between the Kashmiris themselves.

Entrenched interests
The task now for Gen Musharraf and Prime Minister Singh is to deftly move their respective establishments towards accepting this solution. Of course, several complexities and obstacles remain. The general has to deal with sections in the military, intelligence services, religious outfits and civil society that have found easy recourse for six decades on radical rhetoric about Indian occupation of Kashmir. Many sections have developed not just vested but entrenched interests in the perpetuation of the conflict. We are told that when the Foreign Office spokesman in Islamabad reiterated Gen Musharraf's statement that Pakistan had never asserted territorial claim over Kashmir, some journalists walked out of the briefing. On the Indian side, the rightwing parties and intelligence services are expected to oppose, and even subvert, any bold initiative emanating from the prime minister's office and South Block.

While there will surely be attempts at derailing the Kashmir peace process in New Delhi and Islamabad, the real challenge lies within Kashmir proper. Violent outfits, especially those that have wriggled out of the control of Islamabad, are likely to try and sabotage the process. We must expect violence and plan to a) prevent it, and b) work around it. The Kashmiri moderates, led by Mirwaiz, will have to proceed gingerly as they try to develop credibility beyond the support provided from the Indian and Pakistani capitals. They have the hardest task of all, because theirs is the lived reality, whereas things are vicarious for New Delhi and Islamabad strategists.

Let the words of caution and scepticism be given their due weight, but let them not devalue the momentum that has developed over 2006 on Kashmir. There is possibility of breakthrough due to the evolution in international and regional politics, the specific situation in both countries and, most importantly, popular aspiration in Kashmir for peace. Will 2007 see the breakthrough on Kashmir? All Southasians sincerely hope so, and may the moderates win the day!

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