The intense media interest and the more modest outcome of what ultimately transpired after the just concluded visit of the Pakistani PM Mr. Shaukat Aziz to New Delhi is in many ways indicative of the tone and texture of Indo-Pak relations at the present moment. While the two nations have had a relationship of varying degrees of hostility and bitterness since October 1947, the agreement reached in January 2004 over the Composite Dialogue Process (CDP) is the framework in which bi-lateral ties are now being pursued. The essence of this agreement is that Pakistan has sincerely committed that it will not support any form of terrorism or related activity against India and that New Delhi in turn will address all issues between the two countries including J&K.
As per the CDP, a series of meetings have been scheduled between officials and political leaders up to the level of the respective Foreign Ministers – and a number of areas have already been identified varying from nuclear and military CBMs to trade, commerce and people-to-people contact. However two events of recent vintage have generated considerable interest in the on-going CDP. The first is the suggestion made by Pakistani President General Musharraf at an Iftar party that the composite state of J&K could be divided into separate enclaves based on religion or ethnicity and that these could have some form of joint or UN control. This was a radical proposal to say the least and aroused considerable interest in India and those in the global community who track the sub-continent and its affairs.
The second event was the visit to Srinagar by Indian PM Dr. Manmohan Singh and his initiative to address the complex problem of J&K. On the eve of this first visit to J&K as PM, Dr. Singh also announced that India was willing to take the calculated risk of reducing the number of troops currently deployed in the state – and that this decision was based on a review of the current pattern of infiltration and terrorism. During his visit to Srinagar, Dr. Singh reached out to the people of the troubled state and offered both an economic package and a promise that if the path of violence was shunned, he would meet all shades of political opinion in the state. He also reiterated a consistent Indian position that whatever be the accommodation that Pakistan was seeking over Kashmir, India would not accept any form of re-drawing of boundaries or surrender of territory. Reading between the lines, it was also suggested that the autonomy and identity of the state could be restored at an appropriate time if the internal security situation and the political climate changed for the better.
This provided the backdrop for the Aziz visit to Delhi and there was much speculation about what would be achieved. The irony is that Mr. Aziz was coming to India in his SAARC capacity and his interaction with the Indian PM and other ministers were actually an add-on and not part of the CDP. However since the ball was set rolling by the Pak President about new proposals over Kashmir, this issue was upper-most in the public perception. It can now be surmised that the Aziz visit, while not being part of the CDP, has had a salutary effect in restoring the dialogue to its rightful place – the matrix of the CDP between officials and political leaders. It may be recalled that when Dr. Singh was asked to respond to the Musharraf proposal, he replied that these were stray comments at a social event and that if Pakistan were serious about this idea, it ought to be routed through the official channels.
It is relevant that during his visit to Delhi, Mr. Aziz clarified that the Musharraf proposals were made for generating some thought and debate within Pakistan and that it has served that purpose. This is welcome and it must be added that given the manner in which the Pak establishment, particularly the military and the anti-India constituency, have packaged the Kashmir issue since 1989, there is a need to inform the Pakistani people about the reality and relevance of the Kashmir ‘masla’ – as the issue is often called. In short there is a need to alter the contours of the dominant discourse within Pakistan about Kashmir and the Musharraf proposals may have had that objective in mind.
But it must also be conceded that Islamabad, which till recently was inflexible about the UN plebiscite, has now not made that the central issue and this is the sub-text of the Musharraf stance in recent months. It is also pertinent that Mr. Aziz reiterated the familiar Pakistani position that Kashmir is ‘central’ and that it must be addressed before there can be any progress on other issues including trade and people-to-people contact. So one can infer that while the Aziz visit served to restore the dialogue to the CDP, there is no major shift in the position of both sides. This is to be expected given the complexity of the K issue on one hand and the deficit of trust that now obtains between India and Pakistan at the official level.
The way ahead is to sustain the CDP – and note that this will be a long ‘process’ and not a 100 meters race as the Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh wryly observed when in Islamabad. This dialogue may be an instance where the ‘means’ is more important that the ‘ends’ – and the challenge will be to reconcile the seemingly intractable positions of the two sides. But as an analyst I would argue that if the Pakistani establishment is true to its word and desists totally from supporting any form of terrorism or religious extremism against India, then the stage will be set to improve the lives of the ordinary people on both sides – and then the political process coupled with socio-economic development can be encouraged on both sides of the divide. The Indian side is reasonably familiar with the participatory political process and notwithstanding the criticism from some quarters, it is agreed that the 2002 elections in J&K have been fair and today we have an elected government in Srinagar, a credible opposition – and the Hurriyat representing other views.
If a similar dispensation can emerge in the POK area and the COK area (China Occupied Kashmir), then the stage will be set for a meaningful inter-J&K political dialogue. This level of trust and dialogue across the divide may lead to a situation between India and Pakistan where other options present themselves by way of dealing with the J&K issue – and the aspirations and anxieties of its people. For this it may be necessary to identify those areas that can be dealt with first – the ‘low hanging fruit’ syndrome and proceed with those that are ‘doable’ in the first instance. Here the bus between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad is one possibility for it will facilitate greater people-to-people contact across the divide and if this works, it could be extended to other parts of the border, perhaps even to Sind and Rajasthan.
The real conceptual challenge is to ensure that Pakistan’s expectation that progress on Kashmir will be ‘in tandem’ with progress on other issues – a point made by Mr. Aziz during his interaction with the media – will be realized. Here it will be necessary to examine the relationship that now prevails between territoriality and sovereignty. More recent history tells us that in the evolution of a state, a point is reached when an inflexible attachment to notions of territoriality can be differently approached without making any substantive change to the formal positions that states have on contested territory. It is to be hoped that South Asia is now reaching that point and that the national interest will be accordingly defined and pursued.
Mr Shaukat Aziz is an eminent economist and perhaps he knows this logic very well. What is more important is that his boss - Gen. Musharraf - be similarly persuaded. The related responsibility for India is to ensure that the hope generated in the people of J&K is taken to its logical conclusion and that the region returns to its former rhythms and the ethos of a distinctive ‘kashmiriyat’. This intangible quality symbolizes the ethno-religious diversity within the composite state of J&K as it existed till October 1947 and this must be nurtured with consensual participation from all quarters. If this vision is realized, then the deaths of thousands in the last 15 years will not have been in vain – and the trauma of terror that has descended on the region will slowly lift.
In the interim the Aziz visit is best summed up in a sound-byte, ‘no break-through but no breakdown either!’ Inshallah, the next meeting between the Foreign Secretaries on December 7-8 will lead to more substantive results. But on balance, the Aziz visit has been satisfactory.
(Published in Dainik Jagran, New Delhi, on 27 November 2004. The views expressed are personal.)