The option of a phoney dialogue

Monday, December 15, 2014
In his speech to the AJK Council on November 20, Nawaz Sharif reiterated Pakistan’s traditional stand on the Kashmir dispute in language that was refreshingly direct. About 12 minutes of the 14-minute speech were devoted to Pakistan’s support for the Kashmiri people’s right to self-determination and the rest was on AJK’s economic development. 

Besides recalling the UN Security Council resolutions on Kashmir, Nawaz did not mince any words about Indian atrocities against the Kashmiris, which he described as shameful (sharamnak) and horrendous (bhianak), and he duly took India to task for committing acts of state terrorism in the occupied territory while accusing Pakistan of supporting militancy. Nawaz also did well to state publicly that Pakistan would hold consultations with Kashmiri leaders before resuming talks with India. This was important after Sartaj’s gaffe about the timing of the Pakistan high commissioner’s meeting with Kashmiri leaders last August being “not totally right”.

Nawaz’s speech was an important statement on the government’s Kashmir policy and it is regrettable that the information ministry has not released its text officially. It seems they are so busy fighting Nawaz’s political opponents that they have forgotten what their main job is. Or could it be that Nawaz’s words were intended only for a limited local audience?

In any event, it is striking how different the prime minister’s speech was in its content and tone from the one he delivered in the same forum a year earlier in December 2013. In that speech, he spoke at length about the government’s plans for AJK’s economic development and made only a passing remark on the Kashmiri people’s struggle for self-determination. 

Welcome as Nawaz’s speech last month in the AJK Council was for its forthrightness, the question still remains how far the government really intends to go in making a break with the disastrous policy course on Kashmir adopted by Musharraf from 2003-04 onwards and continued after his ouster by Zardari. 

Musharraf’s policy turnaround was signalled by the joint statement issued after his meeting with Vajpayee at the Islamabad Saarc Summit in January 2004. In that statement, Musharraf “reassured” the Indian Prime Minister that he “will not permit any territory under Pakistan’s control to be used to support terrorism” – but without obtaining a reciprocal commitment from the Indian side. The joint statement also referred to Kashmir as a “bilateral issue” in keeping with the Indian stand which Pakistan has consistently rejected. 

As we know now, the Pakistan foreign ministry was kept out of the loop in the negotiation of this joint statement and Musharraf’s chief negotiator was Tariq Aziz, a complete novice in diplomacy whose main qualification for the job was that he was a Musharraf crony and loyalist. 

The concessions made by Musharraf in the Islamabad joint statement were followed by the back-channel dialogue on Kashmir with the Manmohan Singh government in which Tariq was again the sole negotiator on the Pakistan side. Fortunately, these talks were aborted when Musharraf’s dismissal of the Supreme Court chief justice in 2007 triggered a nation-wide movement against the military dictator. Zardari revived these talks under a new negotiator but fortunately shrank from closing the deal.

To his credit, Nawaz has broken with the policy started by Musharraf in 2004 – and continued by Zardari – of not raising the Kashmir issue in the annual UN General Assembly session as one of self-determination and implementation of UN resolutions. In his two speeches before the General Assembly, during the current session as well as last year, Nawaz was quite forthright in voicing support for the Kashmiri people’s freedom struggle. 

The Nawaz government also did well to bring India’s massive violations of the Line of Control and the Working Boundary in October to the attention of the UN secretary general. In a letter to Ban Ki-moon, Sartaj reminded him that the UN had an important role in the peaceful resolution of the core issue of Jammu and Kashmir and that UNMOGIP needed to be strengthened in view of the “current circumstances”.

In a public speech in occupied Kashmir last month, Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh said boastfully, though misleadingly, that it was because of the “befitting reply from the Indian side” that Pakistan “went to request the United Nations Security Council to ask India to stop”. Rajnath does not seem to know that Pakistan did not take the matter to the Security Council and that in any case taking action against those who threaten international peace is the very raison d’être of the UN body, although it has rarely performed that task, having become a foreign policy tool of the permanent members. He apparently forgot also that it was India which had been the first to bring the Kashmir issue to the UN Security Council in 1948. 

There can be little doubt that the steps Pakistan took to put the UN in the picture had the desired effect and were a factor in India’s decision to de-escalate the situation. In an interview with an Indian news agency last week, the UN secretary general disclosed that he as well as other senior UN officials have been in close contact with authorities from both Pakistan and India in recent weeks in view of the escalation of tensions from cross-boundary firing.

Ban Ki-moon’s call on Pakistan and India, in the same interview, to resume talks is further indication of the complete lack of support in the international community for India’s peevish decision to call off talks between the foreign secretaries. Even more tellingly, Ban’s remark that Kashmiris need to be engaged in the process and that their rights must also be respected at all times suggests implicit support for Pakistan’s policy of holding consultations with Kashmiri representatives before engaging in talks with India.

Ban Ki-moon also expressed his readiness to engage with India and Pakistan in resolving the Kashmir issue, if requested by both sides. While Pakistan has welcomed the suggestion, India has responded with complete silence, showing how little it is amused at the idea.

While being adamantly opposed to all moves to ‘internationalise’ the Kashmir dispute, India has professed willingness to discuss it in bilateral talks if Pakistan takes steps which in the Indian judgement create an appropriate environment. Under the Manmohan government, India was only interested in talks if they offered the prospect of a settlement “within the framework of the Indian constitution”, in other words one that legitimises India’s illegal occupation of the state, such as Musharraf’s four-point plan. 

The Modi government is more ambitious. It would not only like to scrap Article 370, but is also not prepared to dilute India’s claim on ‘Pakistan-occupied Kashmir’. Subramanian Swamy, chairman of the BJP’s Strategic Affairs Committee, has said that if Pakistan wanted peace, talks could be held, but there was no question of a negotiated settlement on Kashmir. “We are not going to follow what the previous government did,” Swamy said. “Pakistan should realise that it’s a small country and they have already lost four times”.

The options before Pakistan, if and when India is ready for talks, will therefore be between no dialogue and a phoney dialogue. Instead of pleading with the Modi government for talks, Pakistan should focus its efforts on mobilising international support for the Kashmiri cause and maintain its longstanding position on the issue based on UN resolutions. In any case, the Kashmiris have an alienable right to self-determination guaranteed by international law and Security Council resolutions, and Pakistan has no right to barter it away.

Nawaz should also do one more thing. He should stop begging for a US role in a settlement of Kashmir, as he did in his telephone conversation with the US president last month. The Obama government has repeatedly made it clear that while encouraging Pakistan and India to engage in talks to address the issue, it believes that the pace, scope, and character of their dialogue on Kashmir is for these two countries to determine. That is not bad at all for Pakistan, because if Washington chose to exercise its influence, it will be in Delhi’s favour.

The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.