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Breaking the deadlock

December 27, 2003


Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the forces for peace in the subcontinent are gathering momentum. Like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the different components are falling into place. The danger, of course, is that some spoiled child may come along and kick the pieces apart.

Too often in the past, hopes of an enduring peace between India and Pakistan have been raised, only to be dashed by posturing politicians, brainwashed bureaucrats and grim generals. Vested interests and unabashed hawks on both sides have regularly torpedoed peace moves in the name of ideology and national interest.

In truth they were acting for their own narrow reasons and prejudices, but nevertheless, they have held a vast region of nearly a billion-and-a-half people hostage for more than five decades. But ultimately, international diplomatic and economic forces are succeeding - where overt and covert wars have failed - in pushing the eternally squabbling neighbours to at least discuss peace.

Over the last couple of months, both Vajpayee and Musharraf have taken conciliatory steps to bring the tone and tenor of the dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad out of the boxing ring and in the general direction of the conference room.

Perhaps the best example of this sudden outbreak of growing goodwill is the recent visit of 250 Indian peace activists to Pakistan. For our government to issue so many visas to Indian nationals is as pleasant a surprise as the return visit by a similar number of Pakistanis to a socialist convention in Mumbai next month.

These people-to-people contacts have been crucial in keeping some kind of peace momentum alive even during the coldest days of the cold war between the two countries.

But it is Musharraf's recent offer to move beyond the UN Security Council resolutions on Kashmir that offer the best hope for peace. For years, the Pakistani establishment has been insisting on resolving the Kashmir dispute in accordance with the UN resolutions before relations between the two countries can be normalized.

The Indian side has been stressing the need for other confidence-building measures before the contentious issue of Kashmir can be tackled. They have argued that Kashmir can be put on the back-burner while trade and travel are normalized. Many Pakistanis (including this writer) have supported this approach, given the rigid positions both states have taken over Kashmir.

But on reflection, I now believe that perhaps it is important to sort out Kashmir before any normalization can take place. Basically, the problem with the 'back-burner approach' is that the jihadis and their shadowy supporters could disrupt the process at will by staging a particularly gruesome episode like the attack on the Indian parliament building two years ago.

And as long as a solution is not found to the Kashmir dispute, the jihadis will be players with a major stake. But take away the conflict, and these desperate men will be deprived of their 'raison d'etre'.

This will not only be good for Indo-Pak relations and for law and order within Kashmir, but for Pakistan as well. The recent attempt on Musharraf's life is an example of their power and its destabilizing potential.

What are the possible contours of a settlement that would be acceptable to the three parties to the conflict? One possible solution is that an independent Valley with Hindu and Buddhist areas should go to India while the Muslim area currently known as Azad Kashmir should stay with Pakistan.

All three units would be demilitarized and have soft borders. But now this approach appears to be too idealistic, given the current climate of hostility and ill-will. Perhaps the more realistic solution is to simply declare the Line of Control as the international boundary and get on with life.

One has often argued for greater flexibility and magnanimity from India: being the far bigger and more powerful side, it could afford to take unilateral steps without its security being endangered. And indeed, Vajpayee has taken a number of steps to break the deadlock.

To his credit, Musharraf has reciprocated by declaring a unilateral cease-fire in Kashmir that has been holding these last few weeks. And his announcement that he is willing to ignore some of the provisions of the UN resolutions is historic as it is the first time a Pakistani leader has publicly admitted that perhaps time and circumstances have eroded the relevance of these 55-year old resolutions.

It is true that if a civilian politician had made such a statement, he would have been attacked from every quarter, and especially from GHQ. As it is, Musharraf has been heavily criticized by politicians of virtually every stripe. The religious parties have been especially strident.

But I have long maintained that if the Kashmir dispute was ever to be resolved, it would need a Pakistani general to deliver the army and the extreme right, and a right-wing leader in India to deliver the powerful nationalist lobby.

With the approaching Saarc summit in Islamabad, both India and Pakistan have a historic opportunity to put over five decades of hostility behind them. Although this is a regional summit, there could be many opportunities for Musharraf and Vajpayee to sit down together and issue a joint statement that would clearly enunciate the contours of a settlement.

Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto used a meeting in 1989 to announce a series of measures aimed at promoting peace between their two countries. Ms Bhutto paid for her bold gesture with her job, and Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tamil terrorist, and the momentum for peace was squandered by their successors.

Nearly fifteen years later, and after the loss of thousands of lives and the expenditure of billions, the wheel has turned full circle. With the induction of nuclear weapons on both sides, it has become clear to the dimmest mind in the two high commands that there is no military solution to the dispute.

Years of indigenous resistance as well as an externally inspired proxy war have led only to untold suffering among ordinary Kashmiris. When the recent cease-fire along the Line of Control was announced, Muslim school children on the Indian side recounted how they used to cower under their desks while Pakistani artillery shells rained down. Is this how we wish to liberate Kashmir?

Surely enough lives have been lost to gunfire and poverty to force us to come to our senses. If the leaders of the two countries let us down yet again by failing to break this unending and poisonous deadlock, they will not deserve to remain in power.