Saturday, October 22, 2005

A radical lasso

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: A Radical Lasso

There is nothing personal about suspicion, General; it comes, to indulge in a mild pun, with the territory. If President General Pervez Musharraf has a fault, it is to take things personally.

When Lyse Doucet of the BBC asked him how he could allay suspicions that Indians might entertain about his radical offer to melt the Line of Control in Kashmir, he blew a minor fuse, answering on the lines of, "If they are suspicious about me then I will get suspicious about them" etc.

There is also institutional suspicion in relations between warring neighbours, as well suspicion of institutions. The Pakistan military establishment might harbour suspicions about India that are as justified, within the framework of its commitments and compulsions, as the Indian military establishment’s are about Pakistan. That has to be factored into any equation that seeks to balance the betrayals of the past against hopes about the future.

And yet, paradoxically, that personal element is also an asset. Pakistan’s peace initiatives towards India are propelled to a great extent by the dynamic of General Musharraf’s personal will. He is sincere, and has given as much evidence of his sincerity as is perhaps realistically possible. He also believes that Dr Manmohan Singh is equally sincere in his desire for peace, and has said so publicly; when personality is critical, trust is vital.

India’s Prime Minister is in politics but not of politics. Even those who disagree with him never go so far as to doubt his sincerity. Dr Singh, who keeps his private thoughts private, has not given us too many hints about what he thinks of General Musharraf, but the circumstantial evidence is positive. There would not have been a four-hour dinner between them in New York in September otherwise.

I cannot think of a parallel relationship between two serving chief executives of India and Pakistan. There was mistrust and worse between Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, which spilled over into the brief Nehru-Liaquat Ali Khan era. Liaquat’s civilian successors did not merit much attention from Nehru. By the time Ayub Khan came to power in Pakistan’s first military coup, and stabilised his regime, Nehru began to fade. Ayub Khan went to war with Lal Bahadur Shastri; ironically, the two established a certain rapport during the post-conflict peace talks in Tashkent. It was, tragically, too late, for Shastri did not survive Tashkent. Yahya Khan’s shallow obstinacy could hardly be good news for either his country or the subcontinent; his legacy is well-known. Theoretically, the Indira Gandhi-Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto relationship held promise. Both were populist in their politics and sophisticated in their personal lives. But they spent their time mopping up the dire consequences of war.

The oddest couple was surely Zia ul Haq and Morarji Desai. They had more in common than you might think. Both were 19th century prohibitionist puritans whose efforts at social reform energised a sectarian base. Both were pro-American in their policies, Desai by ideological preference and Zia by utilitarian choice. They came to power at the same time, but since only one of them was a democrat, they left power on different dates and through different routes. Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi shared a similar inheritance as well as a similar problem: they were disliked by their entrenched power centres, and were destabilised when they tried to reach out to each other.

The Nineties disappeared in alternate cycles of uncertainty and instability. The two bombwallahs were the second odd couple: Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif. They took one dramatic leap forward with the Lahore agreement, and were equally stunned when the leap ended up in a somersault. The relationship between Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf was always clouded on the Indian side by the memory of Kargil, in which trust was the first casualty. Their faces at the first official meal of the infamous Agra Summit, a lunch in Delhi, were worth a thousand pictures. Vajpayee’s face was ice, Musharraf’s was stone. Lal Krishna Advani’s face, for those who might be interested, was granite punctuated by two very careful eyes. Trust began to develop only during Vajpayee’s second gambit for peace, which went to ground when time ran out on him.

Manmohan Singh and Musharraf, having developed the trust, have time on their side. Experience, their own and that of others, should warn them that time is an unreliable ally, always prone to slip and crash on the unforeseen.

It is boring to repeat that a terrible tragedy can be converted into a momentous opportunity. But was the General running ahead of history when he made the most radical, even audacious, offer in six decades of confrontation over Kashmir? Analysts have suggested that by military training General Musharraf is a better tactician than a strategist. However, the offer to melt the border that separates two sides of Kashmir so that people can help one another in the aftermath of a numbing earthquake is a strategic masterstroke. It was made in the context of a crisis, but the idea has already been stretched towards an undefined timeframe. Is this the way to a solution of the one problem that has prevented India and Pakistan from being natural, friendly neighbours?

Much depends on how you define a solution. Is the solution about geography, or is it about people? Is it about Kashmir or Kashmiris? Geography is possessive, acquisitive. Once we shift the radar to the problems of Kashmiris, and how to minimise them if we cannot end them, then ideas, options and opportunities open up.

General Musharraf says that the world is aware of his ideas, and uses some key words: Identify … demilitarise … self-governance … superstructure (to oversee the process). Each of these terms is loaded with snares and infested with barbed wire from the past, not the least of them being identity. The map of Jammu and Kashmir in October 1947, before the first war started, was vastly different from what it is today, and I am not talking about the Line of Control, which came into being at the end of that war and has not shifted since. Demilitarisation will require trust between institutions much more than between individuals, however important the latter might be. Self-governance is a comfortable thought; the means of achieving the authority that will govern less so. Will such governments be democratically elected? Definitions of democracy are not the same on either side of the Line of Control, and indeed differ sharply within Pakistan. Democracy does not mean the same thing to Pervez Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. Long before thoughts of superstructure engage us, the structure might be straddled with hurdles. And so on.

But what is undeniable is that General Musharraf has thrown an innovative lasso across the divide in a search for answers.

The critical fact of the Indian response was its immediacy. The suggestion had barely been made when Delhi said yes. A principle has been established, and we are already way beyond a bus route between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad. Yasin Malik has already tested the principle, and has reached Pakistan-occupied Kashmir with funds for relief. A year ago, the idea of Yasin Malik, or any member of the Hurriyat, visiting Pakistan was considered unacceptable by Delhi. Today we are discussing means of normalising contacts between a divided people. If there is some applause in the air it is only because both hands are clapping.

It is my view that the dialogue between India and Pakistan works when handled in incremental, digestible portions. Sometimes the increments are large, as in this practical move towards soft borders, but, since they are unencumbered by other demands, they become, slowly, digestible. The present chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed (who may not be chief minister by the time Id comes along) has suggested to Delhi that five crossing points be identified to turn the idea into reality. Another step, that is, in the digestion process. If you continue to change reality on the ground, minds will continue to open at the higher reaches of power.

Suspicion is a fog. The dense Kashmir fog is streaked with too much blood. A fog never lifts suddenly, except in fantasy. It clears slowly, invisibly, and only if the environment improves. The Kashmir fog has overpowered the day and seized the night. But it is in the ability of the leaders of India and Pakistan to improve the environment. This subcontinent suffered a political earthquake nearly six decades ago. The last bit of uncleared debris lies in Kashmir. A natural earthquake has given General Musharraf and Dr Manmohan Singh what can only be described as a God-sent chance to clear that debris.

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