Putting life in talks

‘KHAMBE lug gae hain, par bijli nahi hai’ (‘The poles have been erected, but there is no electricity’). With this earthy metaphor president Zail Singh aptly summed up the state of the Indo-Pak dialogue to a senior Pakistani diplomat.

The quarter century that has elapsed since has witnessed little progress. The sparks that lit up the dialogue briefly (2004–07) vanished after the Mumbai blasts on Nov 26, 2008.

The dialogue is not ‘hostage’ to disagreement on the issue of terrorism. The foreign ministers’ joint statement on July 27 outlining a programme before their next meeting in 2012 is proof of that. But a remark by Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar to the National Assembly on Aug 9 reveals a lot. Progress on Siachen and Sir Creek is ‘doable’. Why, then, is the ‘doable’ not been done? What precisely is the impediment to accord?

She told the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in New Delhi that “there was consensus among all political parties in Pakistan for seeking improvement in relations with India”. Mian Nawaz Sharif is committed to that. He made it an election plank in 1997. But the BJP’s leaders snap at Manmohan Singh’s heels every time he moves the talks further towards an accord.

A.B. Vajpayee wrote to him on June 16, 2005 on “the disturbing turn that peace process with Pakistan has taken”. L.K. Advani wrote on March 13, 2007 on the same lines and asked why President Musharraf’s four points were not “rejected … outright”.

Negative sentiments prevail in some across party lines. Manmohan Singh has battled hard to overcome the crisis of confidence over the Mumbai train blasts in July 2006 and the ones in 2008. He relinquishes office in May 2014. International relations do not hinge on individuals; but personalities do matter. The year 2013 will be a pre-election year. Is it possible to register progress in 2012 which is substantial and irreversible?

Obviously lack of progress in the trial in Pakistan of persons accused of complicity in the Mumbai blasts is the prime obstacle to real progress in the parleys. Precisely what in that trial or otherwise will assuage India’s concerns? How far is Pakistan ready and able to go towards assuaging them? Unless the parties candidly discuss and settle this issue it is hard to see the wires humming with bijli.

A lot can be done meanwhile. First, structurally the façade of a composite dialogue must be discarded. It is wasteful. Its charter of June 23, 1997 has run its course. Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek and Wullar lake are issues which cry out for a political solution at the summit. Other matters fall squarely within the remit of the joint commission set up on March 10, 1983.

Revived from hibernation on Oct 4, 2005, it set up eight working groups — on agriculture, culture, tourism, health, information technology, environment information and education. On Feb 21, 2008, eight areas were broadly defined for the groups to work on. They are more specific and comprehensive than the categories listed in para 4 of the joint statement of June 23, 1997.

Secondly, the matters listed in the foreign ministers’ joint statement of July 27, 2011 must be pursued energetically, especially on cross-Line of Control (LoC) trade and travel. Progress on this will improve the atmosphere vastly. In the wake of their meeting, some aired doubts about the four-point formula — reducing the LoC to more “lines on a map”, demilitarisation, self-rule for both parts of Kashmir and a joint mechanism at the top. In 2011, neither side can hope for more. There are three tests and four limits to which any solution must conform.

The tests are: acceptability to Pakistan, India and the people of Kashmir. The limits? No Indian government can accept plebiscite or independence and survive in office even for a minute. Equally, no government in Pakistan can accept the LoC as an international border and survive in office. Kashmiris will not accept partition. Nor will they acquiesce in denial of democratic governance.

The ad hoc understanding in the four points meets the tests and conforms to the limits. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq warmly accepted the four points. Neither Indians nor Pakistanis are fully aware of the hopes they aroused in Kashmir.

In late 2007 when Gen Pervez Musharraf faced fierce opposition at home, in Kashmir one politician after another, cutting right across the political divide — separatists and unionists alike — enthusiastically voiced his support to him. On Nov 30, 2007 none other than chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad praised him as a unique conciliator. On Nov 4, the People’s Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti defended him. So did the Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Butt and Shabir Shah; both on Nov 5. There were jubilant celebrations on Musharraf’s re-election as president. Activists burst fire crackers and danced in the streets of Srinagar. His constitutional outrages earned him rejection in Pakistan. But Kashmiris, rooted for him because, and only because, after decades of darkness they saw a ray of light in the compromise jointly crafted by him and Manmohan Singh.

The former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said on June 30, 2010 that the four points were “his [Musharraf’s] thinking”. Fair enough; but he added “We will not like to ignore any positive development that has taken place between India and Pakistan”. At his press conference on July 15, after the disastrous meeting with S.M. Krishna, he said “those issues and segments for which modalities have already been decided between the two countries should not be reopened”.

In this context Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar’s remark about “associating the true representatives of the Kashmiri people with the dialogue process on Jammu and Kashmir”, while well-meant, will only unravel the entire process. The Srinagar weekly Chattan bravely reflected Kashmiris’ aspirations all these years. Now a daily, its columnist Hamid Salik asked “Magar kaun karega tarjumani”? (who will represent Kashmir?). Who will decide who their ‘true’ representatives are? The top leaders are barely on speaking terms as was evident to all when some of them jointly visited Islamabad in 2005. During the upheaval in 2008 there was a real prospect of unity. But as the Mirwaiz said “some personal egos got in the way”.

The best course is to remove the impediments to progress and finalise the four-point formula with its guarantee of democratic self-governance. No responsible father should reject a proposal for his daughter’s hand in marriage because he disapproves of the boy’s father. Especially if she is none too young, has not many proposals on hand — and the boy is separated from his father.

The writer is an author and a lawyer.