Kashmir at the altar of India-Pakistan relations

In 2017 again, India and Pakistan failed to restore even a semblance of normalcy in their relations and despite a year-end meeting between the two National Security Advisers no breakthrough is visible. With both countries deciding not to move towards normalization and the acrimonious fight on the borders becoming the order of the day, its adverse impact is visible in Jammu and Kashmir where the grind of violence has become a routine.

Killings on the Line of Control (LoC) on January 15 in which four Pakistani soldiers (India maintains seven) were killed in Poonch sector in retaliation to an infiltration bid in Uri sector, killing four infiltrators, have come as a grim reminder of the acrimony that has reached a new level in the past couple of years. Again in past two days at least eight people were killed on both sides.

Last two years have been bad as far as diplomatic wrangling between New Delhi and Islamabad is concerned. The last time we had seen a glimmer of hope was when Prime Minister Narendra Modi had air dashed to the Raiwind home of his then counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his birthday. But that spirit was not to stay for long as an attack on the Pathankot air base soon put a spanner in the works. Both Modi and Sharif were on the back foot then. They tried to put it aside and an investigation even allowed an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officer to visit the air base. However, it was again caught up in inherent mistrust as Pakistan did not “cooperate” in permitting a similar team to visit the places identified by India which it believed were the base for the attackers.

Modi’s “goodwill gesture” had come as a surprise but that too was not without some back-channel efforts and a nudge from somewhere else. His own ambition of grandstanding as a leader in the region also had a role in it. But as history suggests the weather between the two countries can change at any time. Before his (Modi’s) outreach, Nawaz Sharif had also shown courage by visiting Delhi and attending his swearing-in ceremony much against the wishes of the army. He went the extra mile. Both sides might have moved forward on all issues, however, Kashmir came in between and in July 2014 Modi’s government disallowed a meeting between the Hurriyat Conference and a visiting Foreign Secretary of Pakistan, a practice that had been on since 1994.

Kashmir being at the core of relations in Pakistan’s India doctrine, it was impossible for them to remove the K-word from any engagement with India. As former foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri said at a roundtable in Delhi on December 8, Pakistan could not afford to keep the Hurriyat away. “We had to tell our people that we have not ignored them (Kashmiris) and we feel for them. People in Pakistan were very upset, and the opposition and extremist elements were giving the impression that ‘we have done a sellout’. If we involve the people of Kashmir we will have cover in Pakistan after all it is about them. Involvement of Hurriyat Conference in any meaningful dialogue process is a must. You cannot move forward till then,” he said while explaining why it was important for Islamabad to engage with them.

Although both the NSAs have not severed the link and their meeting in Bangkok on December 26 came as a surprise for many given the heightened tension in the wake of Kulbhushan Jadhav’s mother and wife meeting him in Pakistan a day before. According to officials in both countries, the meeting was held in a cordial and friendly manner. Earlier the NSAs had met in Russia in May last year. Not much has been achieved with this informal connection as is visible from the blazing guns and shells along the Line of Control but even maintaining it is significant.

The talk surrounding India-Pakistan engagement has gone up a notch in both countries and going back to extremist positions is something that is used by the anti-peace forces to grind their own axe. In India the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was facing elections, one of them being crucial in Gujarat, so making Pakistan a scoring point to ward off complex pressures in the state ultimately worked in its favour. Pakistan has not done enough to address Indian concerns on controlling militancy and infiltration attempts like the one on January 15 have been regular for quite some time. Islamabad continues to be in denial though.

Besides the BJP’s own policy of not encouraging engagement with Pakistan, a strong section of the TV media has been constantly warning the government not to move in this direction and has been raising passions that revolve round anti-Pakistan rhetoric. That is why the channel of communication that is opened at the highest level is seen as a miracle.

While this engagement may not graduate in the near future as tempers are likely to remain high in the run-up to the early 2019 elections in India, elections in Pakistan are scheduled before that. What was encouraging was that Kashmir and India were no longer part of campaigns in Pakistan. But with a changing scenario in India where Pakistan and surgical strikes were made part of it in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, respectively, the 2018 elections might see Kashmir coming back to electoral politics. In that case we will have to wait for the 2019 general elections in India to see an opening on engagement. Because it has been held hostage to the electoral process, it is unlikely that a grand happening like that of the 2003 to 2007 peace process will take place. But smaller steps that could help ease tensions and put an end to the killings is the least that is expected.

Former foreign secretary Shayam Saran has rightly said that this is the way to push for better relations. “Improved relations with Pakistan can only be the cumulative outcome of a series of modest and incremental steps rather than the result of any big-bang affair,” Saran writes in his recently released book “How India See the World”. Saran was actively involved in the process as foreign secretary from 2004 to 2006.

India and Pakistan may continue to wrestle with each other with claims and counter claims but their real test lies in how they approach the Kashmir tangle. The issue has been the biggest reason for their estranged relations and the past has shown that when approached politically it could help them alleviate the suffering. New Delhi may continue to say that whatever is happening in Kashmir is Pakistan-sponsored and Islamabad may have its own version, the reality is that Jammu and Kashmir has been sandwiched in the battle of supremacy. The people in the state have not been treated as humans but people who are on a piece of land. The onus of approaching Kashmir politically lies on Delhi as the resistance is the reality on this side. People in Pakistan-Administered Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan may have their own set of problems but the magnitude is much higher here; killings take place in Jammu and Kashmir and one must not forget it is the highest militarized zone. It is not a war zone either that could have justified this much of armed power stationed to contain militancy and to look for just 300 militants as per official estimates.

The idea that has been kept alive in the minds of the people is difficult to kill. The only way to address it is political engagement and that too on two tracks: New Delhi-Islamabad and New Delhi-Srinagar. Of course, Dineshwar Sharma has been appointed as interlocutor but his mandate is not yet known. Till now he can only be seen as a grievance redressal manager. And Kashmir is not a petty grievance but a potent political issue that refuses to take a backseat.

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