Is Kashmir again being put on the back burner? This question is not agitating minds of Kashmir leadership that is bogged down by intra-specific and inter-specific discords or caught up in self conjured dilemmas but is being raised by a section of Pakistan media.
Ostensibly, it seems that India and Pakistan are engaged in back channel talks over Kashmir and they have moved beyond the stalemate. Since the start of 2011, an important section of India and Pakistan intelligentsia and think tanks have had couple of meetings outside the arc lights of media gaze in foreign lands. These groups of opinion makers debated and discussed ways and means of ending deadlock between New Delhi and Islamabad.
On January 31, a group of senior opinion makers from India and Pakistan met in Bangkok for identifying methods for improving relations between the two countries and addressing the vexed Kashmir dispute. The group comprised retired ambassadors, foreign secretaries, intelligence chiefs, army chiefs, academics, political leaders and strategic policy journalists. These included among others Sherry Rehman, General (retd) Jehangir Karamat, Brigadier (retd) Humayun Khan, Air Vice Marshal (retd) Shahzad Chaudhry, Nasim Zehra, Dr Rifaat Hussain, Moeed Yusuf, Brigadier (retd) Feroz Khan, Sehar Tariq,, Major General (retd) Dipankar Banerjee, Dr Sanjaya Baru, A.S. Dulat, Sagarika Ghose, , Admiral (retd) Raja Menon, Ambassador (retd) Parthasarthy and Siddharth Vardarajan. The issue that topped the agenda was Kashmir problem. In the joint declaration adopted at the end of talks it was resolved that a dialogue between the two countries should include discussions on Jammu and Kashmir. The formal bilateral dialogue should be complemented by back-channel contacts. The people of JK should be appropriately consulted in this process. In the last week of April India and Pakistan opinion makers once again met under the aegis of the Jinnah Institute, Islamabad and Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, New Delhi. These conferences were different from those organized by Kashmir Diaspora in as much as no Kashmir voice had been invited to be partaking in the deliberations.
The meeting at Islamabad emphasized the need for ensuring uninterrupted talks, demilitarization of Kashmir and no war pact between two nuclear states of the South Asian Sub-continent. The resolution adopted reiterated many points that had figured in the Bangkok declaration but there was less emphasis on the resolution of Kashmir and it was more focused on improving trade links between the two countries. The meet suggested that a liberalized bilateral trade regime was of urgent importance. It called upon the two capitals to ‘pursue the goal vigorously.’
The trade between the two countries is now getting precedence over Kashmir problem. It was not only obvious at the Islamabad meet of intelligentsia of the two countries but was also manifest at top level meeting of the Pakistan Business Council that was attended by all political parties of the country. The Business Council has demanded providing the most favored nation (MFN) status to India to enhance regional trade. It also recommended reviving as many routes as possible from Kashmir to Arabian Sea and setting up a bilateral commission to address the issues that are closely tied up with India and Pakistan having a normal economic relationship. India and Pakistan Trade Secretaries after a gap of more than two years had two day meeting in Pakistan capital. The trade agreement between the two countries is seen as major thaw in the relations of the two countries by Washington. Many in India have been looking at it as a major diplomatic achievement for New Delhi. However, compared to India the opinion on trade ties in Pakistan are not unanimous. Some commentators in Islamabad have been holding the view that the two day trade talks have “managed to achieve more than expected keeping in view the history of rocky and estranged relations between the two countries. Some have been corroborating the views of Pakistan Trade Secretary that the recent trade talks were different from the four rounds held earlier in as much as in the past. It was just articulation of ‘good intentions’ and this time mechanism for implementation of the plans have been kept in place.’ The Pakistan establishment believes that the agreement has succeeded in breaking decades old inertia and succeeded in drawing up a road map.
The question arises do the trade talks, agreement and euphoria in Pakistan business community show a paradigm shift in country’s stated Kashmir policy. Does it indicate that Kashmir is not priority with the PPP government? The diarchy on this issue between Pakistan vernacular press and English language press is as manifest as on other vital issues concerning. A leading Pakistan Daily the Express Tribune saw the agreement as a ‘good news’ and positive Development’ for Pakistan. It commented that there was really not much choice but to move forward, given the desperate need to bolster trade and help both countries boost their economies.” But other than the vernacular Pakistan some important national dailies published in more than one state have been critical of giving trade a priority over Kashmir. The Nation calling it ‘Shameful retreat’ has been highly caustic of the government’s Kashmir policy. “The willingness shown by Pakistan to broaden trade with India”, it wrote, “is to all intents and purposes a shameful retreat from our traditional Kashmir policy.” Emphasizing its point of view the editorial said, “There is no disputing the fact that trade or any other sham economic or political venture amounts to a betrayal of our long-held principled stance on Kashmir.”
The newspaper very subtly suggests that the ministries of commerce and foreign affairs of the country are not in sync on giving precedence to trade over Kashmir. “It is no wonder” it wrote that this flawed approach is causing anxiety within the concerned quarters in the Foreign Office. These officials rightly complain that although bilateral talks are progressing, the process is actually being maneuvered by India.”
The big question is has Pakistan as on date a clear cut Kashmir policy. Since the day the PPP led government is in office in Islamabad it has been endeavoring to de-link itself from the much trumpeted four point formula and has been expressing ignorance about the back channel agreed points, that included no change in the territorial layout of Kashmir currently divided into Pakistan and India areas; the creation of a softer border across LoC; greater autonomy within both Indian and Pakistani controlled parts of the state; a cross LoC consultative mechanism and demilitarization of Kashmir by decline in cross border terrorism (Quoted from Pakistan Beyond Crisis State). Looking at the conference held within the capitals of the two countries the discussions have so far been revolving around the points arrived at back channel during General Parvez Musharraf government. These points had reportedly agreed over after Islamabad had ‘dropped longstanding demand of UN-mandated plebiscite over divided Kashmir.’ The January resolution at Bangkok where the PPP was represented by former minister Sherry Rehman in the resolution had reaffirmed that ‘We agree with the broad vision of India Pakistan relations in which borders cannot change but can indeed be made irrelevant.’ But accepting or owning four formula for the PPP as moot point for furthering discussions on Kashmir would be a hard decision.
It is hard reality that the thinking of India and Pakistan intelligentsia and think tanks involved in back channel talks has got frozen at Musharraf’s formula and these people are yet to come up with an innovative formula or proposal on Kashmir that the democratically elected government would be able to own and given to this situation it seems Kashmir will remain on the back burner and the two countries would be engaged in making progress on other fronts like trade and commerce.
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