Kashmir: Talking Terms

After eleven years of trying to solve the Kashmir problem militarily, India is exploring the possibility of a politically negotiated settlement. For the first time since the 1998 nuclear tests, the military coup in Islamabad, and the Kargil war of May 1999, the Indian and Pakistani heads of government are to meet. Yet, far from optimism over the timing and possible outcome of this month’s talks, the mood in the sub-continent is laced with cynicism.

The World Today
4 minute READ

Making Kashmir the central theme of this month’s inter-governmental talks will be the first obstacle to progress. General Parvez Musharraf ’s line has consistently been that while he’s open to discussing all bilateral issues, Kashmir must get primacy. At the last meeting of the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries in 1997, Kashmir was one of a bouquet of eight key areas identified for future dialogue. In 1999, the Lahore declaration signed by Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharief also made only cursory reference to Kashmir as one of the ‘outstanding issues’ India and Pakistan must resolve.

India’s diplomatic corps, which has defined foreign policy through ten years of unstable coalition governments, prides itself for marginalising Kashmir in the two countries’ official agenda. Despite having kept the diplomats out of the decision making before extending the offer of talks to Musharraf, Vajpayee is unlikely to soften that line.

The atmosphere of recrimination and cussedness over discussing Kashmir has shown up in the exchange between the Pakistan and Indian foreign ministers, even after dates for the summit were set. Pakistani Foreign Minister, Abdul Sattar, described Vajpayee’s offer as New Delhi’s way of acknowledging Islamabad’s role in solving the Kashmir tangle. Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh, responded by reiterating India’s stand that ‘Kashmir is India’s internal issue, which will be dealt with internally’.

The onus, however, on taking matters beyond this stage is squarely with India. Since the Kashmir problem resurfaced in 1989, Delhi has refused to lock itself in a dialogue with Pakistan unless Islamabad stops sponsoring ‘cross-border terrorism’. Having chosen to make an unconditional offer of talks, intransigence on Kashmir will be difficult to explain.

Problems ahead

If the two sides do agree to discuss Kashmir, taking it beyond stating known positions will be difficult for four main reasons.

  • India wants discussion to begin on the basis of the 1972 Simla Agreement between former Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. This recognised the cesasefire line of the 1971 Bangladesh War as the Line of Control between the two countries. General Parvez Musharraf – under whose command India claims the Kargil War took place – is known to have deep reservations about the circumstances in which the that line was defined.

His Foreign Minister, Abdul Sattar, has described the Gandhi-Bhutto pact as an ‘unequal agreement imposed on a defeated Pakistan’. It is unlikely either will agree now on the Simla agreement as a starting point.

  • Any Pakistani demand for a plebiscite in Kashmir will almost certainly be rejected by India. New Delhi has refused to implement the UN Security Council resolutions calling for a public referendum because the precondition of Pakistan withdrawing from the part of Kashmir it occupies has not been met.

Besides, India is expected to question once again the genuineness of the Pakistani demand for a plebiscite. Recent Pakistani governments have interpreted self- determination in Kashmir as accession to Pakistan. In the 1996 elections in Pakistan-held Kashmir, parties proposing independence for Kashmir were banned. Section 8 of the Pakistan constitution has a clause by which: ‘No person or political party in Azad (Free) Kashmir shall be permitted to propagate against, or take part in activities, prejudicial or detrimental to, the ideology of the state’s accession to Kashmir’.

Equally, almost the entire Indian political spectrum is opposed to a referendum in Kashmir. It’s a hardline policy India’s rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party-led government expects will rescue it domestically if the July summit fails.

Describing himself as a ‘servant of parliament’ the Indian Foreign Minister sealed the fate of the Vajpayee-Musharraf meeting by promising to abide by two resolutions on Kashmir passed by the Lok Sabha (House of the People). Those commit India to recovering 78,000 square kilometres of the state of Jammu and Kashmir that Pakistan occupied in 1948.

  • The role of Kashmiri representatives is likely to be brought up sooner rather than later. Pakistan believes Kashmir’s umbrella group of twenty-three political parties – all of whom demand secession from India – represent the broad spectrum of public opinion in the Kashmir valley. Since March last year New Delhi has tried, unsuccessfully, to engage this group, which calls itself the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC), in talks over the future of Kashmir.

In fact, India’s strategy in announcing a unilateral Kashmir ceasefire by March last year was to marginalise Pakistan by talking directly to local groups. That backfired when the APHC insisted on Pakistan’s inclusion, and a tripartite dialogue. India is now trying, through a specially appointed Chief Negotiator on Kashmir, to bring other Kashmiri leaders into political dialogue.

But with a summit imminent, most Kashmiri groups feel such talks are only cosmetic. Will New Delhi then talk to Kashmiri groups with known pro- Islamabad leanings? Despite tremendous international pressure, that looks unlikely. Letting the APHC represent the people of the Kashmir valley narrows India’s options to either letting Kashmir cecede or a plebiscite.

Which is why if General Musharraf remains rigid on making them part of a peace settlement – and it will be a major departure from his known line if he does not – the talks between him and Vajpayee could collapse.

  • The Indian side is expected to demand a cessation in violence in the Kashmir valley during the dialogue. In the last six months of the ceasefire, the number of Indian security personnel and civilians killed in terrorist attacks in the valley has doubled. Indian army commanders there have taken an aggressive line against extending the ceasefire, prompting the Vajpayee government to call it off abruptly.

Fourteen major Pakistan based militant groups operate in Kashmir, under the umbrella of the United Jehad Council (UJC). The largest among them, the Lashkar-e-Tayabba and the Hizb-ul- Mujahideen, have stepped up activity since the ceasefire started, targetting army cantonments in suicide attacks. The Pakistani government has publicly acknowledged its ‘influence’ over the umbrella group.

In the run-up to the meeting, General Musharraf is likely to find himself under great pressure from Washington to use that influence over the jehadi groups to stop the violence. That Pakistan is being forced to reconsider its policy was evident earlier this year when Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider declared that ‘terrorism in the name of jehad will not be tolerated any more’ nor to ‘collect funds, set up training camps, hoist banners and display arms’.

Little however has changed on the ground for the jehadi groups, which continue to run large bases near Rawalpindi in north Pakistan. So Musharraf will find his commitment to act against UJC members challenged by Vajpayee. Anticipating that, the General has linked the outcome of the dialogue to making an appeal to radical Islamic groups to call off Kashmir operations. That’s a clear indication that he will play to domestic lobbies and stonewall demands for pro-active measures against the militants.

Options ahead

Given the difficulties, what are the options on Kashmir for New Delhi and Islamabad? Being the larger country, India will find itself under international pressure to declare exactly what concessions it is willing to make.

Since partition in 1947, New Delhi has had three options on Kashmir:

  • Dividing the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir on religious lines, with a new independent state being carved out of the Muslim majority areas. This proposal, known as the Dixon plan, is unlikely to be accepted by India, which has always stressed the multi-religious character of Kashmir. For purposes of negotiation with Pakistan however, the Indian government could change tack and agree to discuss a trifurcation of the present state into three parts: a largely Hindu Jammu, Muslim Kashmir and Buddhist Ladakh. Pakistan is unlikely to accept that since over a half of the 220,000 square kilometres of Kashmiri territory would stay with India.
  • Accepting the Line of Control as the international border. This is a realistic solution, but unlikely to be accepted by Pakistan, which claims Muslim majority Kashmir as its own. Besides, even if accepted, converting the Line of Control to an international boundary will not address the basic Kashmiri demand for self-governance.
  • Going back to the pre-1953 status in Indian administered parts of Kashmir, where New Delhi’s role will be limited to defence, external affairs and communications. This appears the most likely solution. As Congress Prime Minister Narasimha Rao put it in 1994, anything ‘short of independence’ would be acceptable to India. This proposal is difficult to implement at two levels.

First, it has very few takers among hardliners in Kashmir. Second, Vajpayee’s own party, the BJP, could oppose it. The BJP is committed to the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which gives a certain degree of autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. It’s a stand supported by Vajpayee’s influential deputy, Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani, so any softening of line will not be without considerable political risk.

Political problems

The July summit happens when both Vajpayee and Musharraf are politically vulnerable, and scarcely in a position to chart fresh ground on a sensitive issue such as Kashmir.

Vajpayee’s BJP faces decisive elections in India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh next January. Political analysts believe that after the party’s recent rout in the May state elections, another loss in January could threaten the BJP led national coalition and force mid-term general elections.

General Musharraf, equally, remains answerable to the clergy of the Muslim Ulema and right wing groups like the Islamic Ideology Council and Jamaat-e-Islami. His government is also under warning from jehadi groups, who have threatened to dislodge it if he tries to undermine their influence.

Besides, foreign aid has resumed, and the new US administration has promised to lift all the sanctions that followed Pakistan’s nuclear tests. Effectively, the pressure on Pakistan to talk terms with India is lower now than six months back, when it promised to crack down on pro-Kashmiri militants. Given this combination of factors, it would be unrealistic to expect the Musharraf-Vajpayee summit to end the fifty-three year old Kashmir dispute.