Monday, June 24, 2002

The endgame over Kashmir

EVEN THE most inward-looking of political observers will now have to recognise that international attention is going to continue to focus on Kashmir much beyond the present crisis in India-Pakistan relations. This sharp internationalisation of a problem that India has traditionally sought to fiercely insulate, offers New Delhi, counter-intuitively, an unprecedented opportunity. Political imagination blended with diplomatic deftness could create the conditions for a final settlement that would not just be in the long-term interests of India, but would win widespread internationalsupport. But shibboleths of the past and dogmas of the present need to be discarded if India has to play to win the endgame over Kashmir.
It needs to be first understood that even if the present crisis with Pakistan is resolved to India's satisfaction New Delhi can no longer continue with business as usual. The shield that had seemingly protected Kashmir from the knuckledusters of global opinion has been pierced irreparably. Kashmir is now out there, on the centrepiece of the agenda of every country that matters. Sensitivity to India may mean that, in the short-term, the `K' word will only be whispered in the corridors of the global power elite or that meetings on the issue may be sequestered from public view, but the trend towards greater involvement seems unstoppable. A benign Mexico may have been successfully prevented from hosting an informal meeting on Kashmir under the auspices of the U.N. Security Council, but it will be difficult to prevent the more assertive interests, including NGOs, who will be seeking to make capital out of the interest the issue has generated. Even until a couple of years ago, it was not unreasonable to believe that most Americans and a large section of Europeans would identify the Kashmir Valley most with Cashmere, the fine wool that made for haute couture. Today, not only does Kashmir evoke an image that is rarely warm and comforting, but finds a place in the column of even the most blase political commentator in the Western world.
What, however, is the dominant view within the laity and among the high priests of the international community? If indeed there is a mainstream view, it is epitomised by the recent comments of Joseph Biden, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. Biden asserted that if "India is willing to make substantive changes in its policy towards Kashmir, Pakistan must be willing to accept the LoC as a border and end its support for insurgency". Clearly, there are three parts to the Biden formula, which were also being echoed by officials and non-officials in the U.S. and in Europe. First, there is the strong belief that for any movement on Kashmir the violence must end or show a significant decline. No one, but no one, believes that the politics of terror can be used to pressure Governments into making concessions. Until there is a clear demonstration that Pakistan has stopped sponsoring violence in Kashmir, there will be little attention paid to New Delhi's policies. Conversely, as soon as a judgment is made that Pervez Musharraf has translated his words into deeds, the onus will quickly shift to India.
Second, there is clearly a growing view, among those who matter within the international community, that a final settlement on Kashmir between India and Pakistan can only be on the basis of the Line of Control being converted into the international border, with minor adjustments if need be. A number of reasons are being offered by experts on why this is the only way out. For one, it is being pointed out that there have been at least three occasions when there seemed to have been a near agreement between top Indian and Pakistani leaders that Jammu and Kashmir be partitioned along the Ceasefire Line/LoC.
In 1955, the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Pakistani Governor-General, Ghulam Mohammad, are said to have agreed to a division along the Ceasefire Line with minor adjustments. Between December 1962 and May 1963, Pakistan's then Foreign Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and Swaran Singh, a senior Indian Cabinet Minister, discussed a plan for partitioning along the Ceasefire Line. In 1972, Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Z. A. Bhutto, too, seemed to have arrived at an understanding that converting the LoC into the international border was the only way out of the Kashmir conundrum. History apart, there are other important reasons why converting the LoC into the international border is being seen as the most practical solution to the Kashmir issue. Most important, a solution to the Kashmir problem, it is recognised, cannot be provided on the basis of absolutes. Absolute victory is not possible for either India or Pakistan. It is unrealistic for New Delhi to imagine that it can, with either force or diplomacy, reunify the whole of the State. Similarly, Islamabad, too, must realise that neither war nor support for terror or international pressure will force New Delhi to give up the provinces of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh.
Moreover, it is being recognised, that rewriting boundaries in South Asia will have disastrous consequences for the region. Apart from displacing huge populations, it could lead to communal clashes bloodier than those during the Partition of India. Third, it is being pointed out, the present LoC corresponds, more or less, to a broad ethnic-linguistic division within the former princely state. Finally, it is argued that the two regions have lived as a part of India and Pakistan for more than half a century. Although they have grievances against their respective leaderships, there has been a cumulative process of integration that will be extremely difficult to reverse. While acceptance of such a move means India would have to forsake its commitment to the unanimous parliamentary resolution that calls for reclaiming the territory "under Pakistan's occupation", and for Pakistan to give up its traditional claim to all of Kashmir, a conversion of the present LoC would, in the eyes of many do-gooders, settle a problem which has defied a solution for over half a century. It is, however, the third part of the Biden formula which demands immediate attention from New Delhi. If Pakistan is expected to end its sponsorship of violence and accept the LoC as the international border, India too is expected to make substantial changes in its policies towards Kashmir. "Substantial changes" is not difficult to decode. India, it is believed, must not just be willing to hold inclusive and credible elections in the State, but also negotiate with elected representatives the quantum of autonomy the State's people feel is necessary for functional self-rule. And that the package of autonomy worked out must be guaranteed for the future, by making it a basic feature of the Constitution of India.
Implicit in the formula is the view that the conversion of the LoC would not mean continuation of hostilities. If India and Pakistan were to see the sense in such an idea, they could work toward converting the territory around the LoC into a demilitarised zone. Gradually, there could be a resumption of trade, free passage of goods and problem-free travel for people across the divide, and both Kashmirs would enjoy autonomy within India and Pakistan. In sum, rarely, if ever, in the last 55 years has there been as real a possibility of finally settling the problems over Jammu and Kashmir as there is today. The climate of opinion, internationally and within Kashmir, offers India an unprecedented opportunity. It would be a tragedy, however, if this opportunity was squandered because of political inertia or bureaucratic ineptitude.

(Source: The Hindu, 24/06/02)