Rebuilding national consensus on Kashmir

 Saturday, August 15, 2009  The writer is a former member of the Foreign Service Pakistan’s Kashmir policy rested for more than five decades (1948-2003) on a national consensus. The essence of this consensus was that a Kashmir settlement must be based on the right of self-determination of the Kashmiri people, to be exercised in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions. While maintaining this position of principle, Pakistani governments have also been willing to consider a partition of the state in which India would keep Ladakh, the Vale of Kashmir would join Pakistan and Jammu would be divided. This consensus was broken by Musharraf in several steps he took between 2003 and 2007. For the first time, a Pakistani government publicly gave up the demand for a plebiscite under UN resolutions and proposed a settlement based on the current territorial status quo, leaving not only Ladakh but also the Vale and the Muslim-majority areas of Jammu in Indian hands. Musharraf’s retreat from Pakistan’s traditional stand on Kashmir started shortly before the Islamabad Summit of January 2004.

In an interview with Reuters (December 2003), Musharraf said: “We are for United Nations Security Council Resolutions. However, now we have left that aside.” At the Summit, Vajpayee agreed to the resumption of the composite dialogue in return for Musharraf’s assurance that he would not permit any territory under Pakistan’s control to be used to support terrorism. In backchannel talks on Kashmir which started after the Summit, Musharraf also virtually agreed to make the LoC a permanent border. This was the essence of the “settlement” that would have been signed during a visit of the Indian prime minister to Pakistan. That visit could not take place because of the political turmoil in Pakistan following the dismissal of the Chief Justice in March 2007. As explained by Musharraf in an interview with an Indian TV channel in July, the four elements of the settlement were: (a) making the LoC “irrelevant”—i.e., converting it into a soft border; (b) demilitarisation of the LoC and withdrawal of the Indian military from two or three cities like Srinagar and Baramulla; (c) “self-government” for the two parts of the state divided by the LoC; and (d) a joint body comprising Kashmiris from both sides, Pakistan and India, to oversee “whatever was not devolved to the people of Kashmir.” While Musharraf backtracked from Pakistan’s long-held stand, India has maintained a consistent position. Since the ouster of Sheikh Abdullah from power in 1953, if not even earlier, Delhi has unofficially been agreeable to a partitioning of the state along the ceasefire line, with minor adjustments. Nehru suggested such a settlement in a meeting with US Secretary of State Dulles in May 1953. This proposal was also made by India in the Bhutto-Swaran Singh talks held in 1962-63 but was flatly rejected by Pakistan. This was at a time when India’s hold on the state seemed to be largely unchallenged by the local population. Four decades later, and in the middle of a sustained popular uprising against Indian occupation which more than half-a-million Indian troops have been unable to quell, Musharraf agreed to a settlement on these lines. Having missed the chance to clinch this deal with Musharraf, Manmohan Singh took steps last year before the Bombay attacks to “reconnect the backchannel” with the new government, as Steve Coll wrote in an article in the New Yorker magazine (March 2, 2009).

According to this article, Manmohan Singh was concerned, in particular, about whether Zardari would be willing to continue the talks and whether Pakistan would stand by the non-paper worked out in these talks, or insist on renegotiating. Privately, in discussions with Indian officials, Zardari affirmed his interest in picking up the backchannel negotiations, the magazine wrote.

The article also said that India’s response to the Bombay attacks was “restrained” because “Singh, and at least some of his civilian counterparts in Pakistan, hope to find their way back to the non-paper.” Were it not for these talks, Coll wrote, the Indian reaction might not have been so measured. India’s keenness to return to the Kashmir non-paper also explains why Manmohan Singh agreed with Gilani at Sharm el-Sheikh last month to delink the terrorism issue from a resumption of the composite dialogue. Maleeha Lodhi wrote in an artcile in this newspaper (Aug 4) that Kashmir is at a crossroads. Actually it is not Kashmir but Pakistan’s Kashmir policy that is at a crossroads. The Kashmiris have made their choice. They want azadi. It is the Pakistani government which has to decide whether it will support their aspirations or make a deal with Delhi that perpetuates their enslavement by India.

Bruce Riedel, who led a review of the US AfPak strategy for Obama, was recently quoted by Reuters as saying that western diplomats (read United States) would like to see Pakistan and India getting back into the position they reached in 2007. He said the non-paper prepared in backchannel talks was a “good deal for Pakistan, for India, for the Kashmiris.” Our policymakers do not tire of calling for an American role in a resolution of the Kashmir issue, but oddly they do not seem to realise that any American involvement will be aimed at a settlement on the basis of the territorial status quo, as Riedel indicated. If we are prepared for such a solution, we do not need American involvement, because this is what the Indians themselves are offering. If we want another solution, we should not be inviting Washington to play a role. 

The present government in Pakistan has not yet made clear whether it intends to take forward the process started by Musharraf through the backchannel. The only thing that we know is that the government would like to resume the composite dialogue with India and would like these talks to cover a resolution of the Kashmir issue. But we do not know what kind of a settlement the government is hoping to achieve. This lack of clarity is the result of confused thinking – or lack of thinking – at the senior levels of government. As a result, our Kashmir policy today is aimless, directionless and muddled. Musharraf departed from the old national consensus on Kashmir when he proposed a settlement that would legitimise the present territorial status quo. Even worse, he also betrayed the Kashmir freedom movement, and did so at a time when a new generation of Kashmiris tempered by two decades of resistance to the brutalities of the occupation forces has taken charge. This generation is more determined than any earlier one to wrest azadi from the Indian occupiers. The more India uses force to suppress it, the stronger the freedom movement will become. India can delay azadi for some time, maybe by a couple of decades or a little longer, but cannot stop it. This is the ground reality on which a new national consensus on Kashmir must be founded. Holding a dialogue with India on Kashmir before forging this consensus would be like putting the cart before the horse. First and foremost, there must be a rejection of the deal made by Musharraf in backchannel talks with India. Since the present international environment is not favourable for a just settlement of Kashmir, our aim in a resumed composite dialogue should be the maximum possible alleviation of the conditions of Indian occupation in order to allow the Kashmiris to carry on their movement peacefully. As a signal of our support to the Kashmiri people, we should also revert to our earlier policy, which Musharraf reversed in 2004, of providing moral, political and diplomatic support to their struggle for self-determination and of mobilising international opinion against Indian atrocities and human-rights violations. The prime minister should start by raising these issues forcefully in an address to the UN General Assembly at its next session in September. (Since Zardari himself would not like to miss the opportunity of a junket to New York – his last visit was as many as three months ago in May – Gilani will have to advise him, in exercise of his constitutional powers, against undertaking the visit). Email: