Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Obama and the Valley

The most charismatic American president in recent years, Barack Obama, is paradoxically also the most inscrutable. Given his limited administrative experience and his lack of exposure to a public office, few can claim to know how Obama will actually respond to challenges around the world. Not surprisingly, there is a lack of clarity on his likely policy towards India and South Asia. Much of the political punditry is based on a casual remark by Obama, a newspaper interview, a sound-bite or an off-the-cuff statement.
The issue of Kashmir is a case in point. If the pundits are to be believed, one of the first initiatives that Obama will take will be on Kashmir with a Bill Clinton or a Bill Richardson being appointed as a special envoy. Obama firmly believes, we are told, that until Kashmir is resolved, Pakistan cannot be stabilized and, consequently, the war against al Qaida cannot be won. And that even while Richardson has been designated special envoy for Pakistan and Afganistan, Kashmir is there in the sub-text. This is not serious analysis, but juvenile doodling designed to generate public hysteria on the basis of a single sound-bite in a television interview and a couple of lines to a news magazine.
Can someone as smart as Obama really believe in this facile logic? And does he not know from his understanding of American foreign policy that Kashmir is, and has been, a tar baby? Obama’s foreign policy advisors — at last count, he has about 1,000 — must have, by now, produced a ready reckoner on South Asia which would probably be the following written in bold: “The easiest way to jeopardize relations between India and the United States of America, and ironically prevent any real change in Kashmir, is for Washington to get hyperactive on the valley.”
A quick reading of American policy will reveal to Obama the reason for Indian sensitivities. Let us remember that the US did have 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 Central Intelligence Agency. 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 Fifties, 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. Abdullah’s proximity with the US ambassador, Loy Henderson, also aroused suspicions.
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-Fifties, 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 Nineties, 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. Outraged by the alleged human rights violations committed by the Indian security forces while combating the insurgency, they again raised the slogan of 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 counsellor 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-heart liberals can mouth slogans, but what determines policy is American national interest, and there was no real American national interest in Kashmir; at worst, Kashmir was a stick to use for putting pressure on India on the non-proliferation issue.
What, then, is the position today? Quite clearly, America has interests in preventing a war in South Asia, particularly given 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 concerned about the Islamic jihadis, al Qaida and the Taliban in Pakistan, who are wreaking havoc in Afghanistan, unleashing terror in the region and beyond, and are explicitly targeting the US. 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 greater US involvement.
However, the surest way to diminish American leverage is through explicit involvement on Kashmir, given Indian suspicions. The most prudent way is for Obama to continue exercising pressure on Islamabad to clamp down on the terrorists and extremists, and then gently nudge India to resume bilateral talks. Once New Delhi is persuaded of Islamabad’s real intent to end terrorism as an instrument of policy, the back channel on Kashmir can be resumed. The understanding between Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh can then become the basis of a real win-win solution in Kashmir. Fortunately, Obama is a pragmatic realist, and has little time for either the Adlais or the Robins of the Democratic party.

(Source: The Telegraph, 28/01/09)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Picking up the threads in Kashmir

One of the most abiding symbols of Kashmiri culture is the pheran.  A combination of an overcoat and a gown, the pheran is a great leveller.  For generations, all sections of Kashmiri society — young and old, men and women,   Pandits and Muslims, aristocratic and subaltern — have depended on this long, loose robe to protect them in the harshest of winters. This traditional Kashmiri dress has, of course, been both a symbol of resistance and fashion. The militant’s Kalashnikov virtually disappeared under the creaseless layers of the tweed variant, while embroidered pashmina designer-pherans have rarely been out of fashion even in Paris’s Gallery Lafayette. Not surprisingly then, the pheran is also a potent acronym for the agenda that the new Omar Abdullah led National Conference-Congress coalition government should follow, with each one of the alphabets expanding into a weighty policy direction: planning, human rights, education, reconciliation, autonomy/ self-rule, and a new culture of  governance. The Omar Abdullah government must begin the exercise of stitching this new pheran within the first 100-days of his government. 
ammu and Kashmir does, in a manner of saying, conduct an extensive planning exercise. But like much else in the state, the reality is starkly different. Earlier this week, the Financial Commissioner Planning and Development Department, presumably to endear himself to the new government, delivered a lecture in which he pompously declared that Jammu and Kashmir has pioneered planning decentralisation in the country by creating district development boards. In fact, the planning department is the most overcentralised, inefficient, and idiosyncratic part of the government. Other than token meetings, there is rarely any significant consultation with stakeholders.
Omar Abdullah has signalled that he may set up a planning board, and this would be a very important initiative. The planning board must be manned, however, by primarily professional economists (and sociologists) and those who understand the importance of a more imaginative, organic, and a truly decentralised perspective to planning.
 One of the most sensitive areas where the new government will be tested is the issue of human rights. Will it be able to strike the right balance between ensuring the dignity of the average citizen while continuing the fight against militancy? There are four fronts on which the new government must act. First, the state human rights commission must be given real teeth. This should be possible through an immediate ordinance, to give citizens greater confidence. Second, the government must plead with the centre to seriously review the applicability of some of the draconian laws and gradually repeal them, district by district, if not in their entirety right away. Third, it is time to consider giving general amnesty to all political detainees from the state. Finally, ensuring the dignity and human rights of the Kashmiri Pandits must also form a centrepiece of the agenda. 
Investing in education, training and skill development have to be part of the fundamentals of the new government if it has to take advantage of the huge demographic dividend in the state. The youth can become the state’s greatest strength, its soft power, in the years to come. Jammu and Kashmir has witnessed, in recent years, a massive expansion of educational infrastructure from the school to the university level. Much of this has been unregulated and there has been little attention paid to issues of academic direction, equity, excellence, public-private partnership and the needs of the market. The state has, consequently, witnessed high levels of educated unemployment and low levels of vocationally skilled human resources. 
It is essential also to give the youth of Jammu and Kashmir a greater stake in the country’s booming knowledge economy. Public-private partnerships are also needed to enhance international connectivity by extending broad-band access in the state — with stronger incentives provided through the existing universal access funds for telecommunications. Given the geography of the state, and its growing endowments of skills, electronic exports of services may play a more significant role in its beneficial economic integration than the export of apples and handicrafts.  
The state has rarely been as polarised as before, and, let us face it, with both a regional and a religious divide.  Reconciliation should not remain a slogan. It cannot merely be the embroidery on the pheran, but become part of the fabric itself. There is the need for multiple reconciliations: within the valley between the Kashmiri Pandits and the Kashmiri Muslims and between the separatists and those within the mainstream; between the valley and Jammu and Ladakh; and between the sub-regions in Ladakh and Jammu. While a reconciliation commission may be a formal mechanism, much more can be done at the civil society level. In the long term, dealing seriously with the issue of autonomy, self rule and regional balance are critical. While key decisions may have to await backing from New Delhi, the state government must initiate a dialogue. It must not hold its own views/ reports sacrosanct, but generate real creative thinking while considering other models and experiences across the world. 
Finally, the new government must initiate a new work culture rooted in the politics of positivism. It must seek to channelise the immense talent within the state through inspirational leadership, which learns from the past, but does not remain a prisoner to past divisiveness and bitterness.
 (Source: The Indian Express, 08/01/09)