K-word back in Pakistan discourse

On December 25 last year when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a dramatic landing in Lahore to personally wish his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his birthday, it created a furor vis-à-vis India-Pakistan relations. The euphoria, however, fizzled out soon as it was followed by an attack on Pathankot air base by militants. The hopes rekindled by his personal visit were soon dashed to ground as things went back to square one. New Delhi had a reason to be angry but it still allowed a joint investigation team from Pakistan that included an officer from Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) to visit Pathankot. Islamabad did not allow a similar visit from India and things have since come to a grinding halt.

This year Modi kept his date with Nawaz on his birthday though he just chose a telephone link to convey his wishes. On the face of it, the gesture by Modi is significant given the heightened level of tension between the two countries. Kashmir’s five-month-long unrest further dented it with Pakistan raising its pitch at the United Nations. Within Pakistan too, Kashmir has bounced back in the discourse. For long time fatigue seemed to Kashmir taking over the government, civil society and media in Pakistan. But today it has again become part of every discussion and that too with a hardline approach. The way Kashmir faced the trauma in last five months and braved bullets to get killed, blinded and maimed, it created a huge emotional space in Pakistani society.

Notwithstanding Pakistan’s initial approach towards fast developing situation in Kashmir after July 8 killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, it later dominated every space in Pakistan society. Nawaz Sharif was forced to call for a “Black Day” to mourn the rapidly increasing number of deaths and had to harden his stand even though he was seen strengthening his peace overtures towards India. This too is a fact that the Pathankot incident and Islamabad’s subsequent refusal to “cooperate with investigation” created a hawkish space in Delhi to not to trust Pakistan. PM Modi did not walk extra mile to continue with the peace moves the way he had taken everyone by surprise with his last year’s Lahore visit. Violation of ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) further compounded the situation with hawks capitalizing over the out-of-gear situation that both New Delhi and Islamabad allowed to shape up in the already battered relations. Coming under pressure with Panamagate scandal, he had to follow his Army’s never changing anti-India policy. However, the reality is that New Delhi also did not do anything significant to create a space amenable to resumption of dialogue.

Now that Delhi has chosen to ignore Kashmir and not even recognize the problem that compounded on the ground in last five months, the support for a peace process within Pakistan also has shrunk. Latest addition to this is the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) co-chairperson and former President Asif Ali Zardari invoking Kashmir on his return to home after 18 months. Zardari without even choosing his words told his supporters that Kashmir would become part of Pakistan. Referring to recent uprising he said that Pakistani flag had become a symbol of resistance in Kashmir. Zardari’s invocation is nothing but to address his constituency since Kashmir had made a comeback. For many years Kashmir was missing from the electoral politics of Pakistan, and in 2013 also no party used the K-word during the campaign. It was the internal situation, terrorism and corruption that dominated most of the electioneering that brought Nawaz Sharif back to power. Except for the Army, Kashmir fatigue was very much visible in this discourse. With a stalemate on Kashmir between India and Pakistan, it has made its comeback possible with Nawaz Sharif also talking vociferously at the UN in September and declaring Burhan Wani as new hero of Kashmiris. The uprising set out a competition between the political parties who are surely going to use it in future as well. Zardari’s son Bilawal Bhutto too used Kashmir during the elections that coincided with the start of uprising in Kashmir after July 8 this year.

PPP has its own history of hardline stance on Kashmir and that has not changed much since its inception. Many analysts have concluded that Kashmir played a role in emergence of PPP when its founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto opposed the then Pakistan President Ayub Khan’s agreement in Tashkent with Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri that focused on Kashmir. Differences led to Bhutto’s ouster as Foreign Minister and little before that during 1965 war he had talked about fighting a 1000-year-long war with India. Bhutto’s legacy was continued by his daughter who though tried peace time with Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister of India, forcefully pursued Kashmir. It was during her reign that Organisation of Islamic Conference created a contact group on Kashmir and Hurriyat Conference got an observer status. Zardari’s assertion on December 23 echoes with Benazir’s outright rejection of the idea of an “Independent Jammu and Kashmir”, the thought dominates today’s Kashmir. It was, however, the bonhomie between India and Pakistan, though less focused on Kashmir, which had forced the political parties in Pakistan to mellow down on Kashmir rhetoric.

Today a strong pro-Kashmir movement has been regenerated in Pakistan and an equally anti-Kashmir constituency is prevailing in India. This situation has once again given away the space to those who believe and pursue the idea of violence to resolve Kashmir. Societal pressure that evoked emotional support to Kashmir in the wake of recent uprising has also forced Pakistani parties to toe a hard-line. In these new times, Pakistan is not far away from Kashmir as whatever happens here it gets transmitted within seconds. Pellet gun injuries made a huge impact in Pakistani society through social media even as Kashmir has been reeling under trouble for long time. Technology has brought the picture closer to every Pakistani home, as put by a journalist friend in Islamabad and “it certainly makes the difference to understand Kashmir of 1990 and 2016”.

In this backdrop Modi’s call is just a formality that would not help both sides to pick up the threads on a dialogue process. Need is that people as well as political parties shun their rhetorical approach and think out of box. But that does not seem to be possibility in near future as India prepares for elections in four crucial states in next three months. BJP will have to formulate a policy that will focus on Pakistan to garner support in elections and as a result will further strengthen the extremist elements in that country. For the time it will be extremists on both sides who will have a field day.