Debating India

OPINION

Grey Light Of Dawn

Prem Shankar Jha

Monday 12 July 2004

The secretary-level talks have begun on a mature tone. Now, to keep it going.

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Sandeep Adhwaryu

Trying to discern the future from the contents of a joint declaration between two sovereign countries is like trying to read one’s future in a coffee cup. The declaration released after the meeting between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan in Delhi last weekend is a case in point. Predictably, it contains a great deal of what might be called ’white noise’-useful measures that can be claimed as markers of success in case the talks make no headway on the main issues. There are agreements to restore both embassies to full strength, to open the consulates in Karachi and Mumbai, arrange the exchange of civilian prisoners, release fishermen caught in each other’s waters and, most important of all, endorse the nuclear confidence-building measures hammered out at the technical meetings between June 18 and 20.

But behind the static one can hear the deeper tones of what the future might hold for the two countries, and the portents are good.

Throughout the protracted preliminaries that preceded actual engagement, each government wrestled with the fear that the other might not be sincere, and may try to twist the words of previous statements to give them a meaning that was not intended. The burning question in India was whether General Musharraf could be ’trusted’ to keep his word even if agreements were reached. All through 2003, as Mr Vajpayee struggled to enlarge the areas of convergence between India and Pakistan, sceptics portrayed every new terrorist attack in Kashmir as yet another example of Pakistan’s habitual double-dealing. ’How’, they asked, ’could India trust the instigator of the Kargil war?’.

Pakistan too has had to wrestle with its own demons. If it reined in the Lashkar, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, would not the return of normality in Kashmir, signalled by a flood of tourists, vindicate India’s claim that terrorism alone was responsible for the violence in the state? To Islamabad, the restoration of normality in the Valley and expressions by Hurriyat leaders of a desire to enter into a dialogue with New Delhi increased the possibility that India would claim there was no longer any need to engage in talks with it except to curb cross-border terrorism.

The Delhi talks have calmed most of these fears, for they have shown how far both countries have moved to accommodate each other’s points of view and find a common ground for negotiations. India gave a quiet burial to its lingering desire to settle other issues first, even within a composite dialogue. Kashmir was discussed in the very first foreign secretary-level talks. The remaining six issues on the original eight-point agenda will be taken up at their next meeting in August.

Pakistan too has moved a long way from its previously held position. The most important shift is its recognition of the Shimla agreement and its commitment to implement it ’in letter and Spirit’. To Gen Musharraf, till as recently as a year ago this was anathema, as he considered it an unequal treaty forced upon Pakistan in its darkest hour. Today, although Pakistan interprets parts of the treaty differently from India, the inclusion of this one clause in the declaration has created a base in international law on which to build a future agreement.

An attempt has been made in some quarters to portray the reference to ’the principles and purposes of the UN charter’ as a concession by India to Pakistan. In fact, it is somewhat of the opposite. This phrase is to be found in both the Shimla agreement and the Lahore declaration. What is significant is the absence of any reference to the UN resolutions on Kashmir. India would never have agreed to it. But the joint declaration has confirmed Gen Musharraf’s willingness to move away from the UN resolutions if Delhi engaged in substantive, sincere talks on Kashmir.

Pakistan has reserved its position on several of the proposals put forward by the Indian government.But all in all, the Delhi talks seem to have met Islamabad’s expectations. Indeed this was confirmed by the Pakistan foreign secretary, Riaz Khokar, as soon as he returned to Islamabad.

While the beginning has been good, there is still a vast gap, in both perceptions and expectations, to be bridged. The statement by Pakistan’s spokesman, Masood Khan, that a solution to Kashmir would have to be acceptable not only to India and Pakistan but also the Kashmiri people can be read two ways. It could be a continuation of Pakistan’s decade-old policy of stoking disaffection with India by keeping up a low level of terrorist activities, and simultaneously encouraging pro-Pakistan leaders like Ali Shah Geelani, and assassinating Kashmiri nationalist leaders like Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq and Abdul Ghani Lone. Alternatively, it could be borne of the realisation that a compromise solution would be far more acceptable to the people of Pakistan if it is perceived as fulfilling the wishes of the people of Kashmir. This ambivalence is likely to continue until both Delhi and Islamabad realise that Kashmiris want autonomy from both Pakistan and India without severing links with either.

Regrettably, the foreign secretaries could not find a meeting ground on the issue of cross-border road links between Jammu and Sialkot, and Muzaffarabad and Srinagar. Islamabad does not want the travel to require passports and visas as that would amount to de facto recognition of Kashmir as a part of India. New Delhi does not want to permit travel on special papers for only Kashmiris as that would amount to annulment of the instrument of accession. But this is where both governments need to step away from legal niceties in the interest of the Kashmiri people. A special travel document valid only for travel between Pakistan and India could be a workable compromise.

P.S.

in Outlook India, Monday, July 12, 2004.

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