April 2004 News

Peace Process: The Bumps Ahead

8 April 2004
The Hindu
C. Raja Mohan

New Delhi: Despite the unprecedented popular enthusiasm on both sides of the border for improved bilateral relations between India and Pakistan, the peace process has begun to hit a big bump on the road. While the formal negotiations on the full range of bilateral issues are a few weeks away, the answer to an uncomfortable question can no longer be avoided. Will the political framework for the peace process, which was announced in Islamabad last January by the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, survive the scorching summer that lies ahead in the subcontinent? At the heart of the challenge to the peace process, no surprises there, is the question of Jammu and Kashmir. The divergence of approach on Kashmir has already begun to manifest itself in the decision to postpone official-level talks between the two sides scheduled for this week on the launch of a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad across the Line of Control. While there might be polite noises about continuing these talks in future, it is becoming clear that Pakistan is not yet ready to soften the LoC and allow movement of people across the border. The Indian proposal late last year for such a bus service had electrified the people of Kashmir across the LoC. The inability of Pakistan to agree to the bus service might be presented as a disagreement with India over the modalities of organising movement of people across the LoC. India and Pakistan certainly differ on the kind of documents that the people must carry. But at the root of the disagreement is a political apprehension in Pakistan. Permitting people-to-people contact across the LoC, with all the necessary customs and immigration formalities, sections of the Pakistani establishment believe, will weaken Islamabad's position that Kashmir is a 'disputed state' and might make the LoC look like a regular border. Even more important, the recent emphasis by Gen. Musharraf on the primacy of Kashmir in the Indo-Pakistan dialogue has begun to cast a dark shadow over the peace process. In recent remarks, Gen. Musharraf made it amply clear that the current bonhomie across the border, reinforced by an exciting cricket series, could easily be reversed if in the perception of Islamabad there is no progress towards the resolution of the Kashmir question. The comments have been downplayed in Pakistan and made light of in India. But there is no running away from the fact that the General has raised fundamental questions about the future of the peace process. 'We have to move forward on Kashmir. We have to resolve it,' Gen. Musharraf said in a broadcast over Pakistan Television a few days ago. 'The Foreign Ministers will meet in July-August. If we don't move forward, I am not in the process,' he emphasised. These remarks were interpreted in the Pakistani media as setting a deadline for resolving the Kashmir question. Pakistani officials were quick to reject the notion that the peace process with India was in jeopardy even before it began to take off. The Pakistani Foreign Secretary, Riaz Khokkar, underlined that Pakistan was not setting any 'deadline' for a solution to the Kashmir question and that Gen. Musharraf did not use the word. The Indian side, too, was quick to dismiss the fear that the peace process might be in danger. The Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani, with a reputation of being a hardliner on Pakistan, gave the benefit of the doubt to Gen. Musharraf. He suggested that the remarks might only be about posturing to the domestic audience. Sections of political opinion in Pakistan have accused Gen. Musharraf of softening Pakistan's stand on Kashmir. The Defence Minister, George Fernandes, insisted that the India-Pakistan peace process was moving in the right direction and that there was no reason for New Delhi to be perturbed by Gen. Musharraf's remarks. He pointed out that a road map has been drawn for India-Pakistan engagement, which will address all bilateral issues, including Kashmir. The Vajpayee Government, having taken credit for engineering a successful peace process with Pakistan, is in no position during an election campaign to get into an extended verbal spat with Gen. Musharraf on what seem to be disconcerting signals that Pakistan might be backtracking from the Islamabad deal. But the problem arising from Gen. Musharraf's remarks is not about setting a deadline for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. It is about reopening the questions about the nature of the linkage between key issues in the peace process. Most people believed that they had been sorted out in Islamabad. The joint statement issued in Islamabad on January 6 by Mr. Vajpayee and Gen. Musharraf had two interconnected deals. The first understanding defines the relationship between cross-border terrorism and India- Pakistan dialogue. At Islamabad, the two sides agreed that the renewed engagement between the two countries would take place in an atmosphere free of violence. Gen. Musharraf would take steps to prevent cross-border terrorism. And India in return would negotiate on all issues, including Kashmir. The second understanding is about the relationship between normalisation of bilateral relations and the resolution of outstanding issues such as Kashmir. The joint statement in January said: 'To carry the process of normalisation forward, the president of Pakistan and the Prime Minister of India agreed to commence the process of the composite dialogue in February 2004. The two leaders are confident that the resumption of the composite dialogue will lead to peaceful settlement of all bilateral issues, including Jammu and Kashmir, to the satisfaction of both sides.' Both these issues are of crucial importance and both sides have long argued about them in defining the parameters of a sustainable peace process. At Islamabad, India and Pakistan seemed to have found a way to address them in a reasonable manner. Gen. Musharraf is now suggesting that this framework could unravel if there is no 'progress' in the resolution of the Kashmir question. In his comments to the India Today conclave last month, Gen. Musharraf said the situation could return to square one, if Pakistan believed that the movement on Kashmir was not adequate. In other words, violence in Kashmir could resume if there is no satisfaction for Pakistan in the negotiations. This reinforces the suspicion in New Delhi that Gen. Musharraf's offer to end terrorism was merely tactical and that Pakistan would continue to use violence as a leverage in the negotiations over Kashmir. This would in turn force India to keep its own cards on the Kashmir negotiation close to its chest until the summer months are over, when infiltration is at its peak. On the relationship between normalisation of bilateral relations and the resolution of the Kashmir question, the past arguments between India and Pakistan centred on what comes first. India used to argue that normalisation of bilateral relations must precede the resolution of the Kashmir question. Pakistan insisted that improvement of ties could only follow a solution to what it sees as the core dispute between the two nations. At Islamabad the two sides finessed their differences by moving from the emphasis on sequential movement to simultaneous progress. The essence of the understanding at Islamabad was that both normalisation of bilateral relations and the movement towards the resolution of the Kashmir question would begin at the same time. Sane voices on both sides of the border also believed that it might not be possible to proceed at the same pace on all issues. What was important was movement on all fronts, a focus on solving problems, and an effort to address the difficult issues sincerely. Gen. Musharraf's argument now that if there is no 'movement' on Kashmir, he will be out of the peace process runs against that common sense, which seemed to prevail at Islamabad. This is reflected in the signals that Pakistan plans to hold back on the normalisation of bilateral relations - whether it is on trade or contact between the Kashmiris - until there is progress, unilaterally defined by Gen. Musharraf, in the impending negotiations on Kashmir. Two factors might be compelling Gen. Musharraf to backtrack on the Islamabad framework. One could be the need to deflect domestic pressure arising from the controversial military operations, under American pressure, to root out the remnants of the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban from Pakistani soil. The other could be a miscalculation by Gen. Musharraf that the American decision to designate Pakistan as 'a major non-NATO ally' has begun to alter the external environment of the peace process in favour of Pakistan. Whatever might be the motivations of Gen. Musharraf, New Delhi must desist from the temptation of pressing the panic button. While it must be prepared to face all eventualities, India must continue to do its best to sustain the peace process with Pakistan.

 

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