August 2001 News

To pick up the threads

17 August 2001
Frontline
SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN

New Delhi: AN online poll conducted towards the end of July by the Pakistan newspaper The Nation, revealed that scepticism about a continuing engagement with India was beginning to dominate public perceptions in that country. Of the (admittedly rather few) respondents to a specific and narrow question posed by the newspaper, more than 67 per cent said that they did not expect that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee would visit Pakistan before the end of the year. This was just two days after the Prime Minister's Office had formally acknowledged the letter of invitation received from the Pakistan chief executive and President, General Pervez Musharraf. Even if the General's ardour for renewing contacts remained undiminished after the unproductive outcome of the Agra Summit, his compatriots were convinced that the Indian Prime Minister did not share his sentiments. Interestingly, at about the same time, an opinion poll in India - somewhat more rigorously designed and canvassed - revealed overwhelming support for continuing the dialogue with Pakistan. Close to 70 per cent of the respondents surveyed believed that the summit-level exchanges should continue, and roughly an equal number saw little amiss in discussing the issue of Kashmir with Pakistan. By an equally overwhelming margin though, respondents were convinced that India should not concede that Kashmir was the core issue in relations with its estranged neighbour. These polls, of course, are not quite representative of the spectrum of opinion that exists in the two countries. And if the survey on the Indian side reflects a broad public endorsement of the peace initiative with Pakistan, the exercise done across the border seems only to suggest some uncertainty about how far the Indian government will go in its quest for a new paradigm in neighbourhood relations. The Indian respondents believe that the talks should go on - without being sure whether they will go on. The Pakistan respondents think that the talks are unlikely to resume at the apex level in the near future, though it is presumably the case, as their President declared at his first press conference since the Agra Summit, that they share the overwhelming desire for peace expressed on this side of the border. India's External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and his Pakistan counterpart Abdul Sattar, held press conferences in Agra and Islamabad respectively on July 17 that were symmetric in their tone. Both seemed to tilt towards a positive prognosis as far as future summit-level engagements between their countries were concerned. There was a crucial difference, though. The official statement released from Pakistan spoke of the two sides coming very close to bringing a declaration to adoption and approval. For his part, Jaswant Singh chose not to speak of how close or how far the two sides had been to agreement. He said: ''Complex discussions and negotiations of this nature always hang by a thread. But I do not want to comment on how close we were to agreement, because we differ on matters of principle." Yet Jaswant Singh did affirm that future meetings would pick up the threads from the Agra negotiations in seeking to bridge these differences in perception. Just the following day, however, the Indian side seemed to retract, in a curious reversal of protocol, through a media briefing conducted by the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, Joint Secretary (External Publicity), Nirupama Rao. No agreement was reached (in Agra), she said. "There was no closure of an agreement and no subscription by signature. So we have to start again on the basis of existing agreements - the Simla agreement and the Lahore declaration - which form the cornerstones of relations between India and Pakistan." The motivations for this peculiar routine, which pitted a relatively junior official against the Minister for External Affairs, were evident. At a meeting on July 18 with the National Security Council and Federal Cabinet in Islamabad, Musharraf had been rather too transparent about the negotiating record in Agra. A joint declaration had been agreed and would have been signed, he said, but for a last-minute change of mind on the Indian side. Although upset, he was still optimistic and determined to pursue the process of dialogue. And in this effort the Agra discussions would prove valuable, since the nine-point draft declaration that had been all but agreed would provide a basis for future dialogue. By formally asserting that the half-cooked deal in Agra could not supplant the agreed formulations of Simla and Lahore, the Indian government was obviously seeking to pre-empt any possibility of the General scoring a further public relations victory. Two days after the Summit, the Indian side was awakening to the uneasy realisation that its management of the information and media end of the proceedings had been far from imaginative. It had injudiciously allowed Minister for Information and Broadcasting Sushma Swaraj to go on record with a selective and self-serving account of the negotiations on the first day of the Summit. Musharraf's riposte came the next day, in the shape of a televised meeting with leading Indian mediapersons, where he ruthlessly drove home the point that he had come to talk about Kashmir and would not settle for a declaration that sought to classify it as just one among many problems confronting the two countries. Although provoked into a frenzy of indignation, the Indian side could not quite remedy the impression that Musharraf's forceful negotiating style had won him major verbal concessions on Kashmir without quite obliging him to yield much on issues of greater concern to India. The half-made deal in Agra was, in this sense, something that India was disinclined to let Musharraf use as a starting point for future negotiations. After the initial optimism expressed by Jaswant Singh, a distinct tepidity crept into Indian accounts of the future of summit-level engagements. After a meeting of the National Democratic Alliance, the Information Technology Minister Pramod Mahajan, who doubles as spokesman for the ruling coalition, pleaded that there was a serious problem of crowding in the Prime Minister's overseas travel itinerary for the rest of the year. The intention was obviously to damp down expectations that India was anxious to fit in another summit-level contact with Pakistan before the end of the year. FROM across the border, a narrative began to take shape which pitted the moderates against the hardliners within the Indian delegation in Agra. This account was sanctified by none other than Musharraf himself, and cast Vajpayee as the liberal who was keen about a fruitful outcome, only to be thwarted by unnamed extremist elements within his Cabinet. Vajpayee responded with some indignation, claiming that such interventions would only create hurdles to a resumption of talks at an early date. Explaining the entire exercise of the Agra Summit to Parliament on the second day of its ongoing monsoon session, Vajpayee was again non-committal about dates. He had accepted an invitation to visit Pakistan, as had the External Affairs Minister. This would ensure that the bilateral engagement would continue. And India would seek to persuade Pakistan that the process of reconciliation in the neighbourhood should not be held hostage to any one issue. The Prime Minister's account of the failure of the Agra talks is the most authoritative version available so far. Although sparse on details, the outlines of the story are clear. Progress was made on elevating the level of dialogue on the key issues - Kashmir, peace and security and nuclear risk reduction - to the political level, with agreement being reached on periodic contacts between the Foreign Ministers and the top political leaders of the two sides. Other issues, such as the Wullar Barrage, Sir Creek, and the promotion of commercial and cultural contacts, were to be taken up at the official level, again through institutionalised bilateral contacts. Finally, said Vajpayee, the deal fell through because of Pakistan's insistence that a settlement of the Kashmir issue would be necessary in order to make progress on other fronts. To repeated Pakistani references to the wishes and aspirations of the Kashmiri people, India responded that peace and security of life and limb are the foremost priorities in that embattled region. But Pakistan proved recalcitrant to the notion of introducing in the joint declaration a reference to cross-border terrorism. There was no way, said Vajpayee, that India could accede to this. Pakistan is believed to have insisted that the conglomerate of secessionist forces in Kashmir, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), should be brought into the negotiations on the future of Kashmir at an early date. In order to serve this purpose, it is learnt to have urged the Indian government to facilitate the visit of the main figures within the APHC to Pakistan at an early date. The Vajpayee government, though, is averse to this notion. It has assented to a political dialogue with the APHC within the parameters of the Indian Constitution, but it is far from according the secessionist group a place at the negotiating table alongside Pakistan. Vajpayee still has to answer a great many questions from the parliamentary Opposition. But there is something about the company of his party faithful that undoubtedly induces him to shed all diplomatic restraint. Abandoning the tone of disappointed expectations, Vajpayee, according to BJP general secretary Narendra Modi, delivered at the party's National Executive meeting in Delhi on July 28, a less than flattering summation of the Pakistani approach at the Agra Summit. Perhaps the most startling aspect of the account rendered by Vajpayee to his party is the revelation that with Musharraf's insistent emphasis on Kashmir, the Indian side knew from the very beginning of the Summit that Agra would not produce an agreed statement of any sort. And yet the exercise was not entirely futile, said the Prime Minister: "We did gain from Agra... We had an opportunity to meet with General Musharraf, talk to him and assess him. This will be useful for future talks." Musharraf, according to Vajpayee's narrative, brought to Agra all the subtlety of a soldier embarking on a task-oriented mission. At one point, his insistence on Kashmir being the core issue elicited a query from Vajpayee on what he saw at the core of this core issue. In Indian perceptions, the problem began with the Pakistani effort in 1947 to alter the realities in the State by sending in armed raiders from the Frontier Province to force the issue of its accession to the newly created Muslim state. Musharraf allegedly had no convincing answer to this reiteration of a 50-year old Indian position. Later, in the course of an exchange of pleasantries, Vajpayee told the Pakistani General that his initiation into politics had come with Jan Sangh founder Shyama Prasad Mookerji's campaign in 1953 to iron out the anomalous status of Kashmir's accession to India. Again, Musharraf proved rather ill-informed about that chapter in Indian politics. Yet, with all the differences in perception, a great deal of progress was made on the second day of the summit. Musharraf, in the account rendered by Modi, was desperate to arrive at some positive conclusion since he did not want to go back empty-handed. But India simply could not compromise on its main concerns. FAILURE has its own rewards. In the first few days following the conclusion of the Agra Summit, it seemed that the return of an element of civility in the dialogue between India and Pakistan was perhaps its singular achievement. Considering the tone of the recent exchanges between the two countries, this was by no means an insubstantial achievement. It now remains to be seen whether the BJP National Executive resolution, adopted shortly after the Prime Minister's address, will materially alter the situation. The resolution recycles a number of pre-Summit irritants which both sides were careful not to place excessive emphasis on during the deliberations. It makes a pointed reference to Musharraf's alleged rejection of the Simla and Lahore accords, describes his meeting with APHC leaders in Delhi as a gross discourtesy, and deprecates his conversion of a private meeting with mediapersons into a public spectacle. It rules out the possibility of a meaningful dialogue with Pakistan as long as the jehadi mentality continues to dominate the ruling establishment there. Inspired leaks have also begun appearing in the media about the government's disinclination to enter into another summit-level meeting with Pakistan. India's emphasis, it is now being put out, will shift towards a solution of the Kashmir problem internally, by means of enforcing stricter norms of accountability among elected representatives and accelerating the process of economic development. At the same time, there will be no relaxation of the diplomatic pressure on Pakistan. India will now reportedly seek to ensure, if the news leaks attributed to highly placed intelligence sources are to be believed, that the economic costs of retreating into a cocoon of Islamic fundamentalism begin to hurt Pakistan, forcing it to come to terms on the issue of cross-border terrorism. Apart from the hazards inherent in this course, there is also little new thinking evident in the task of dealing with Kashmir internally. Home Minister L.K. Advani, who has been cast in Pakistani accounts as the villain of Agra, recently rejected any possibility that the State of Jammu and Kashmir could be given any more autonomy than it has now. He did not rule out the grant of special powers to the State though, presumably merely as a device to combat its internal political schisms with a heavy hand. Advani's attitude reflects the tendency to view a political problem in terms exclusively of security parameters. And as the blood-letting in Kashmir continues, the security forces seem unable to exercise the necessary element of discrimination in their choice of targets. Srinagar was recently paralysed by two days of a general strike to protest against the killing of Abdul Hameed Tantrey, alias Commander Masood. Notionally the second-ranking member of the pro-Pakistan militant group, the Hizbul Mujahideen, Tantrey had participated in the short-lived negotiations with the Indian government last year. And in recent times he had acquired a reputation as a moderate raising his voice against the infiltration of foreign militants into Kashmir. His slaying in a supposed encounter with elements of the Special Operations Group of the Jammu and Kashmir Police was criticised not only by the secessionist elements but also by mainstream political forces like Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's People's Democratic Party. If attitudes have begun hardening in Kashmir, then perhaps the constituency for a reconciliation with India, that seemed to have some chance of growing when the Hizb declared its ceasefire last year, could again begin contracting. The prognosis for the troubled valley could then well be an accentuation of the trauma into which it has been plunged over the last decade.

 

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