Thursday, June 15, 2000

Big Brother's secret meddling in Kashmir

Is the United States secretly mediating to resolve the Kashmir issue? Ever since US President Bill Clinton's hugely successful visit to India, a variety of reports - from a diversity of sources - have suggested that Washington has been quietly playing a decisive role in Kashmir. It is even being suggested that the Clinton administration is behind New Delhi's "new" initiatives in Kashmir.
n the Kashmir Valley, particularly, this has created heightened popular expectations that a final solution to the "Kashmir dispute" is round the corner. Much of this is baloney. While it is clear that the US remains deeply "interested" in Kashmir, there are clear limits to its involvement. Not only are current American interests in Kashmir rather limited, but the US leverage vis--vis New Delhi or Islamabad, particularly on Kashmir, is also vastly exaggerated.
To be sure, America had a deep interest in the future of Kashmir during the Cold War. Pakistan was an ally, and had acceded to the Baghdad Pact in 1955, which was later renamed the Central Treaty Organization. And Kashmir had a unique geo-strategic location. Declassified American sources suggest that the idea of an independent Kashmir was seriously explored (and promoted) within the State Department and the CIA.
An undivided, independent Kashmir would share borders with five countries: the erstwhile Soviet Union, China, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. It could well have served as a vital listening post to monitor both communist China and the Soviet Union, and, with crafty manipulation and luck, may have even become an American military base.
In the 1950s, suspicion about American policy on Kashmir had reached such a level that in 1953, Sheikh Abdullah - the Wazir-e-Azam of Jammu and Kashmir - was dismissed, it is believed, after he had a series of meetings in Srinagar with Adlai Stevenson, who was touring Kashmir (among other places) after having lost the American presidential election. Indian intelligence operatives, it seemed, had "listened" to their conversations, and had concluded that Stevenson had assured Abdullah of American support for an independent Kashmir.
After it became clear that there were few takers for an independent Kashmir (not even Islamabad), the Americans continued to support Pakistan's demand for a plebiscite in Kashmir. It was only because of a sustained Soviet veto, after the mid-1950s, that the United Nations Security Council was not able to press for an enforcement of earlier resolutions on Kashmir.
Suspicions about official American thinking on Kashmir were resuscitated in the early-1990s, after the end of the Cold War. This time, however, there were no great strategic interests at stake: The Cold War was over, the Soviet Union had disintegrated, China was almost an ally, and there were easier gateways to Central Asia than through Kashmir.
It was, however, the bleeding heart liberals of the Clinton administration, who - it seemed - were deeply disturbed by the new troubles in Kashmir, and outraged by the alleged human rights violations committed by the Indian security forces while combating the insurgency, who again raised the slogan o an independent Kashmir.
What made things worse was the presence of Robin Raphel - the first ever assistant secretary of state for South Asia - in the first Clinton administration. Raphel had been a political counselor in the American embassy, and despite the knowledge that as a 'friend of Bill' she was destined for higher positions, had been largely ignored by the protocol-conscious mandarins of the Ministry of External Affairs.

The Kashmiri militants and collaterals in the Pakistan embassy had, however, been smarter and more politically astute. They had, over delicious Kashmiri "gushtabas" and Peshawari "naans," convinced Raphel of their cause. Not surprisingly, at one of her first off-the-record briefings as assistant secretary, Raphel set the Ganges on fire, by stating that the official position of the US was that "the accession of Kashmir to India was disputed." India's suspicions seemed to be confirmed: The Liberal trail for an independent Kashmir ran from Adlai Stevenson to Robin Raphel.
This, of course, was wide exaggeration. Bleeding Liberals can mouth slogans, but real American national interest determines policy. And there was no real American national interest in Kashmir; at worst, Kashmir was a stick to use to put pressure on India on the nonproliferation issue.
What, then, is the position today? Quite clearly, America has interests in preventing a war in South Asia, given, particularly, the presence of nuclear weapons. A war in South Asia could be deeply destabilizing for the international system, and every hegemonic power would be deeply concerned about such a possibility.
Washington is also deeply concerned about the Islamic jehadis in Pakistan, who are unleashing terror in regions beyond South Asia and are explicitly targeting the US. Also, there are significant lobbies in the US as well as self-styled do-gooders who want a resolution of the Kashmir problem, and want to see a greater US involvement. The most prominent of these do-gooders is Farooq Kahthwari, a Kashmiri businessman who is currently the chief executive of the chain of American furniture stories, Ethel Allen.
Kathwari, a few years ago, commissioned the Kashmiri Study Group, whose members included a number of American Congressmen and academics, to find a solution to the Kashmir problem. The Study Group has come out with a number of "ideal" solutions. The latest, however, is a much-diluted plan for an autonomous, secular, democratic Kashmir, sovereign but without an international personality, and in practical terms existing as a protectorate within India. It is Kathwari who has made a spate of recent visit to the subcontinent and Kashmir.
Post the Clinton visit, however, there is a clear convergence of interests between Indian and the US over Kashmir. Both realize that Islamic fundamentalism poses a deep danger to stability in South Asia. New Delhi has realized that there is a need to embark on an imaginative policy to win the hearts and the minds of the Kashmiri people. This has the support of Washington.
Neither Washington nor New Delhi believes that borders can be rewritten in South Asia and will be limited to putting pressure on Pakistan to stop aiding and abetting militants in Kashmir, while supporting India's initiatives aimed at an internal package of autonomy. The Kashmir Study Group's latest plan is the latest evidence of the limits of US policy. 


Thursday, June 8, 2000

Tourists are pouring into Kashmir

 The rush at the airline counter at Delhi airport makes it almost impossible to believe that we are all undertaking a journey to "the most dangerous place on earth." "Are you not scared to travel to Kashmir?"
 I ask a group from Singapore, whose joi de vivre is scary, rather than infectious. A middle-aged woman seems intrigued: "Is there any trouble there?" Before I can conclude that these are victims of a devious travel agent, a younger woman, probably the daughter, interrupts: "We are dare devils! We will go anywhere!" 
There is no further opportunity to seek a detailed explanation from these adventurers, who are probably seeking an escape from Lee Kuan Yew's painfully boring paradise.
These dare devils are not alone. Flights to Srinagar are full, with about a thousand passengers, mostly tourists, arriving everyday. And they are visible almost everywhere in Srinagar, especially on the boulevard on the shores of the Dal Lake, despite the ubiquitous presence of gun-toting security personnel.
Many domestic tourists are arriving by road, ignorant of or impervious to the risks of landmines and improvised explosive devices, that recently killed an important minister of the state government near the national highway.
Some of them were visiting Vaishno Devi - a few hours away from the Kashmir Valley - which over the last decade has become one of the most popular Hindu shrines, and were lured by drivers in Tata Sumos, who have special arrangements with houseboats on the Dal and Nageen lakes.
"Get a taste of paradise, before it goes away. Only for Rs 500" is one catchy marketing slogan. And seven innocent tourists are herded into one Sumo.
But not all takers of the Tata Sumo package entirely buy the marketing strategy. "We came here because there is a BJP government at the Centre and L K Advani is Home Minister. We feel safe and completely secure," declared a group from Andhra Pradesh, as they walked down from the ancient Shankaracharya temple, with vermilion marks on their foreheads.
The tourist industry is cautiously optimistic. The umbrella separatist organization, the All Party Hurriyat Conference, has declared that tourists are welcome to visit the valley, and the state government's Tourism Department is offering a 30 per cent rebate to all visitors.
Yet, the caution remains. "The tourist season had picked up last year too, but then Kargil happened and the flights were stopped and the tourist traffic plummeted," pointed out one local businessman. Tourist operators feel this season will be the most decisive.
"If no major incident happens then the real tourists will come back next year."
The real tourists are, of course, the Japanese, the Germans and the Americans, with yens, marks and dollars to throw - or so is the nostalgic memory of the good old days.
The violence has not stopped. Not a day passes without at least half-a-dozen killings of militants, innocents or security personnel in the Valley. But the scale of random violence has gone down. The militants are choosing specific targets, usually politicians or security personnel, and the chances of innocents getting caught in the crossfire are far less than they were even a couple of years ago.
And although ordinary Kashmiris do complain of harassment at the hands of security forces, there is no doubt that the number of human rights violations, and especially custodial killings, has also not gone up - at least according to official statistics.
And yet there is a growing impression within Kashmir that a deliberate attempt is being made by vested interests to drive a wedge between different communities that had lived harmoniously for centuries together. They point out that the first casualty were the Kashmiri Pandits; select killings, rumors and a systematic campaign led to their exodus in the early 1990s.
Early this year, the massacre of Sikhs at Chattisinghpura had almost led to mass migration of this minority community from the Valley, but fortunately the Muslims reassured them successfully.And only recently, there was a bomb blast during a meeting Shia Muslims, in which at least a dozen people were killed and a prominent Shia leader was injured.
In Kashmir's deeply suspicious atmosphere, fingers are pointed everywhere, often with little evidence. And yet the truth remains that Kashmir's cultural ethos, that blended Sufi Islam, Mahayana Buddhism and Shaivite Hinduism into a composite identity, is in deep danger, and distrust between communities is at an all-time high.
Srinagar is buzzing after Home Minister L K Advani's offer of a dialogue with the separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference. Most intellectuals, who spoke at a high-powered seminar in Srinagar, felt that the dialogue should be unconditional (Advani had made his offer conditional on the Hurriyat accepting the talks within the framework of the Indian Constitution), but accepted that "tripartite talks" between India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris (as the Hurriyat has demanded) were fanciful.
Expectations are high and almost every Kashmiri is hoping that a way could be quickly found to ensure permanent peace after all these years of deep turmoil.
Intellectuals, academics and other members of civil society, who had earlier locked themselves in a shell, are today coming out and speaking for themselves. This is a healthy sign, and it does mean that the silent majority can no longer be ignored.
But what about Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah? Even as the high-powered seminar was going on, virtually next door, Abdullah was playing his 18 rounds of golf, unconcerned, but watched by almost a convoy of security forces.
He knows very well that until the separatists really come round to making a deal with the Centre, still a remote possibility, he can continue being the Emperor of Kashmir, with his fleet of aircraft, his satellite phones and his security entourage.