Byline by M J Akbar: A thin hope
How does one reconcile these news stories appearing on the same day? In Islamabad, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik tells Parliament that the Jamat-ud-Dawa [latest name of the Lashkhar-e-Tayaba] is among the 25 groups banned under the 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act. In Srinagar, the Indian Army says it has killed at least eight terrorists trying to sneak across the Line of Control, seven in Kupwara and one in Poonch. Back in Islamabad foreign office spokesman Abdul Basit clarified that there had been no change in Pakistan’s stand and it still wanted an independent Kashmir.
On the face of it, the last is most easily understood. Just as Dr Manmohan Singh has been busy trying to reassure India that he had given nothing away at Sharm El Sheikh, Yousaf Raza Gilani probably had to make his own clarifications. In any case, Pakistan is not going to abandon a core element of its India, or Indian subcontinent policy, just because Dr Singh included Balochistan in the joint statement. And yet, there is a delicate blur in a long-held position that might not be noticed at first glance.
What is Pakistan’s long-held position on Jammu and Kashmir? Not independence; of this you can be certain. Pakistan sent troops in 1947 and 1965 to absorb Kashmir into the Muslim country, not to create a separate Kashmir state. It set up “Azad Kashmir” as an interim arrangement, pending the amalgamation of the whole of the Kashmir valley into Pakistan. This region has been treated as “azad” [free] from India, but not “azad” per se.
In practical terms, Pakistan gave up on the plebiscite as the route to absorption, partly because there was no way of forcing India to agree; but not on the idea that the Muslim regions of Kashmir were a rightful part of Pakistan. This was reiterated as recently as during the autocracy of Pervez Musharraf. The concept of independence was never shouted out of the room because it kept Kashmiri groups fighting for “Azaadi” onside, and amenable to support from Islamabad. Most often this ticklish dilemma was addressed with silence, or a nebulous “let the Kashmiri people decide”. It helped keep pressure on India through both pro-Pakistan elements and pro-independence parties.
If the Pak foreign office spokesman was fending off a reporter’s question with the traditional mix of all-options-open phrasing, then there is not much to pursue. It was a casual combination of sentences, all in a day’s work. But if this is calculated policy line then it represents an important shift. The statement would have to be repeated, and at a higher level, to represent a significant change. In the meantime, we can only speculate whether Islamabad is edging, cautiously, towards an alternative negotiating stance. Once it abandons the Pakistani claim on Kashmir, then options open in which compromise can be reached with Delhi on a new nebulous status for Kashmir, one which can be interpreted by Delhi, Islamabad and Srinagar in whichever way it chose to. The domestic constituency, in each case, has to be persuaded through a grand fudge since that is what it will amount to given how hard past positions have been.
The problems of terrorism fall into a different category. It is possible that the Pakistan Government is just too weak and helpless to do anything more than make appropriate noises.
Musharraf’s administration had authority; Asif Ali Zardari seems merely to be in office. If the Jamat-ud-Dawa was genuinely banned as a terrorist outfit, then Hafeez Saeed could not be giving sermons at leisure in Lahore. Saeed is not in custody because Islamabad told the Lahore High Court that the Jamat was not on the list of terrorist organisations. In fact, it has only been removed from the list of welfare charities. Western correspondents who have interviewed senior officials of the Jamat have quoted them as saying that nothing had changed, and that the “liberation of Kashmir from Hindu rule” was still their primary objective. And so, irrespective of what Islamabad might desire, the infiltrators continue their steady progress across the Line of Control. The Indian Army knows the number apprehended, or killed; it cannot know how many got away.
The New York Times published a revealing story by Sabrina Tavernise and Waqar Gilani, datelined Multan, on Friday, about Fida Hussein Ghalvi, who testified against Malik Ishaq, founder of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. “In Pakistan, the weakness of the state is matched only by the strength of its criminals. When Mr Ishaq was arrested in 1997, he unleashed his broad network against his opponents, killing witnesses, threatening judges and intimidating the police, leading nearly all of the prosecutions to collapse eventually.” The report, noting that Ishaq could be out on bail this month, describes him as founder of “Pakistan’s most vicious sectarian group, whose police record has a dizzying tally of at least 70 killings — and has never had a conviction stick”.
This was the situation under Musharraf; things have only deteriorated in the last two years.
This, perhaps, is what impelled Dr Manmohan Singh to suggest that this is a time when a democratic Government in Pakistan needs all the help it can get, including from Delhi. But it is a fallacy to believe that any other country, particularly India, can be helpful beyond a very limited degree. The nuances and compromises essential to any solution would be heavy enough on a leader with broad and strong shoulders. It is too much to believe that a Government that has already lost the trust of the street, and the confidence of its administration, can pull off something as dramatic as an agreement with Delhi. If Islamabad can neither stop cross-border infiltration nor go forward on a deal, the peace process will splutter out completely.
Could a deal come precisely because Islamabad realises that conflict with India has strengthened forces that are now the biggest danger to Pakistan’s civil society, democracy and evolution towards a modern nation? That is a thin hope, but one which we should preserve.