Saturday, March 29, 2008

A real chance in Kashmir

Byline by MJ Akbar : A real chance in Kashmir

Terrorism is an internal threat, and far worse than any external threat could ever be, for the enemy within is always much more dangerous than the enemy without.

What do Pervez Musharraf, Asif Zardari, Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan, Altaf Hussain (chief of the MQM), Asfandyar Wali Khan (leader of the Awami National Party of the North West Frontier Province, soon to be renamed Pakhtunkhwa) and influential opinion-makers in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad have in common?

They have all come to a calculated conclusion: that the Indo-Pak impasse over Kashmir is now seriously detrimental to the economic and strategic health of Pakistan; that Pakistan has been held hostage to the Kashmir dispute and it is time to shake off the fetters of history and move on. These fetters have imprisoned travel and trade between neighbours and placed an expensive and unnecessary, if not quite unbearable, tension on the defence forces of Pakistan. They understand what common sense tells us: that free travel and mutually beneficial trade between India and Pakistan could transform the subcontinent, if not into a modern Europe then at least into the Europe of circa 1955.

They may not admit it publicly, but it is likely that the leaders of the Hurriyat in the Kashmir valley accept this privately. President Musharraf is on record as saying that borders do not have to change in any future accord. Zardari has told Karan Thapar in a television interview that Pakistan can no longer be held hostage on Kashmir to the detriment of its economy and defence. Columnists in influential newspapers like Dawn have written that Pakistan needs to break out of this suffocating straitjacket and get on with life. India and Pakistan have invested too much and too long in death.

This is not the view merely of an enlightened elite. The street is also tired of a hostility that promises nothing. War may have some meaning, however expensive and disastrous it might be, if there is a possibility of victory. But you do not have to be a strategic egghead to realise that Pakistan cannot capture territory in Kashmir from India. Since India is content with the status quo, it has no desire for a single square inch of "Azad Kashmir". What then is the point of confrontation?

The change on the street is reflected in an interesting shift of perceptions. 2007 was a traumatic year for Pakistan; the Afghan war had spilled over into the west of the country; the people were livid with Musharraf; and the turmoil peaked with the terrible assassination of Benazir Bhutto. But not once in the whole chain of lurching, searing events was India blamed for instigating any trouble. India and Kashmir were totally absent from the rhetoric of the Pakistan elections, for the first time in the nation's electoral history.

That old idiom has worn so thin that it can't be seen anymore. The people know that their problems begin at home and must be addressed there. A self-declared Arab friend of Pakistan was telling me, with despondent acerbity, that the national slogan of Pakistan has changed: "They used to say 'Pakistan Zindabad!' Now they say, 'Pakistan se zinda bhag!'" Terrorism is an internal threat, and far worse than any external threat could ever be, for the enemy within is always much more dangerous than the enemy without.

The solution is not with us yet, but it would be fair to suggest that the Kashmir dispute is over. The mutually-acceptable future border will be the present border: the line where the two armies ceased fire on the first of January 1949, and which they have guarded with such zealous ferocity for six decades. Six decades add up to two generations of lost sisters, forgotten cousins, and a relentless hostility that has aborted the potential of two nations. Everyone has heard the question: why do Indians and Pakistanis get on so well in a third country, and how come they do so well in a foreign habitat? The answer was always simple: because they were not living in India and Pakistan. Over the last decade India has begun to make such jokes irrelevant, but that is nothing compared to what it could achieve in harmony with a natural economic partner like Pakistan. It would vitalise SAARC, and set the subcontinent, which still has the poorest parts of the world on its landscape, on the long route towards self-respect.

Is this column too optimistic? Perhaps. After six decades of pessimism perhaps we should be permitted an hour of optimism. The dynamic of power has changed in Islamabad. While the military-civilian partnership could be fraught with tension in domestic affairs, it is a good fit for India policy. Zardari and Nawaz Sharif are talking the language initiated by Musharraf. (Now that Pakistan has also got a Dr Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister, it is more important to find out Zardari says.)

But of course the moment has to be propitious on both sides. One of the minor tragedies of the Indo-Pak equation is that when one side is ready the other is busy, or seems to be busy: it is easy to manufacture an excuse when you do not want to do anything. However, India is heading into its election season just after Pakistan has cleared its calendar. No one readily fools around with either war or peace on the eve of an election, unless you have become either careless or desperate. Delhi lost a great opportunity when Musharraf was riding high; but even if high drama is not possible, there can be forward movement on trade and travel. But whoever forms the government in Delhi after the next election cannot afford to waste time, because by then time might be running out in Islamabad.

Should those Kashmiris who challenged India on the strength of support from Pakistan feel betrayed or relieved by this swivel? Practical sense suggests relief, because they were caught in a deathly squeeze between quarrelling elephants. The idea of an independent Kashmir was always a lemon; neither India nor Pakistan would have permitted such a state on such a sensitive geopolitical flank. Punjab and Bengal were divided in 1947; Kashmir was divided in 1949. Those facts are unlikely to alter. The fate of Kashmir may be settled, but not the fate of Kashmiris. Peace between India and Pakistan will give them de facto if not de jure unity because it will restore free movement of people and goods across the ceasefire line. That is not a small gain in a life that is finite.

The danger of ignoring this moment should be obvious. If peace cannot be found when it is waiting patiently in the drawing room, then we are creating an opportunity for some future warmonger. The continued American presence in Afghanistan, the repeated American incursions into Pak territory and the resurrection of Taliban are creating tensions that are making Pakistan's Army vulnerable to internal pressures. Instability breeds unpredictable brats.

I have long held the slightly heretical view that India and Pakistan will have to work as allies in troubled Afghanistan, but for that to happen we have to find an alignment of self-interest and identify a common enemy. A resolution of the Kashmir dispute is a first, and urgent, requirement to meet a much larger challenge.


/!\"HimaLayaN--SwaStikA"/!\ said...

Dear Akbar Ji,

I have always admired your journalism because you report truth. Yeah I too believe that this is our chance with kashmir now.. Some part of the Kashmir is with China as Aksai Chin and we have a good chance of getting it from China..

Pakistan for past few months is facing taste of its own medicine in form of terrorism. If you read a Pakistani news paper than it more feels like India in terms of bomb blasts and terrorist acts. After attack on Lal Masjid in Lahore by Musharraf, terrorists got themselves involved in Pakistan rather than India.

Now we have really less numbers of terrorists acts. Its all because all the Gun Powder is now being used in Pakistan than India. Before this new Govt came to power in Pak my only solution for kashmir problem was to break it in four different countries namely Pak Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, NWFP and let them fight among themselves. We would capitalize on that fighting and win back the POK. In that way they wont be bothering India the way they are doing it now.

To an extent that thought is right as now India is more peaceful, since terrorists have got a playground in Pakistan itself. Kashmir should be integrated more with India and there should be abolition of article 370.

We can bargain with China by reviewing our stand on Tibet and brigning China to its knees. Well all this requires a strong Govt which doesnt run on oxygen by Communists. Dear Akbar Ji dont you think that Communists are really strange human beings??

PrasenjitKBasu said...


I have always admired your writing, and you are spot-on with this. When the ANP is in power in Pakhtunkhwa (for the first time since Partition), and the ruling coalition in Pakistan is very favourably disposed towards India, it is time for our cease the initiative -- as Dr Manmohan Singh rightly did in his letter to PM Gillani.

I differ with you on two points: 1) this is not the first Pakistani election in which India wasn't the bogeyman (in 1996, Sharif ran a campaign specifically on a platform of making peace with India, while Benazir was still shrill in her denunciation of India; Sharif won in a landslide); and 2) Gillani is stronger than Manmohan, who still has no political nous (reflected in his inability to ever win a popular election; by contrast, Gillani once beat Sharif in his constituency, left the Muslim League to join the PPP on principle, and then refused 5 years of blandishments and chose imprisonment in order to oppose Musharraf; this is a man with considerable political credibility).

Unknown said...

Dear Mr Akbar,

Perhaps this is time we in India also do a bit of rethink on the way we progress with Kashmir in Particular and the Fedral structure in General. I think, as far as trade is concerned, we can follow EU model, but as far as politics is concerned we can actually follow much more federal structure, where many important decisions are vested at the levels of districts.

This would give lot of control and influence to the local people to influence their own destinies.

Hopefully, this century would be one in which People can talk about living the dream of the sub-continent as they currently do for America.

However for this to happen, the politicians in either side of border need to develop compassion for the well being of their people. Thats a bit of tough call, with the quality of leadership in our countries.

Unknown said...

Well Mr Akbar i have always admired your writting becuase you always managed to project plight of common people but in this case you seem to be ooooout of touch with reality that common kasahmiri is fed up with Indian Occupation . India can make peace with Pakistan but what about kashmiris . Truth is that regarding kashmir there is denial of reality in India and you are party to that .