The Gordian Knot
30 November 2004
Karachi: If only Alexander the Great had sent his entire army home and, instead, settled in the subcontinent himself. He might have sired someone who possessed his courage, a latter-day name-sake who could have severed with one bold stroke the knotty problem that has bound India and Pakistan together for the past fifty- seven years, and kept them apart - the Gordian knot also known as Jammu and Kashmir. Future historians will marvel why a billion and a half Indians and Pakistanis should allow themselves to be held hostage to the aspirations of 6.369 million registered voters in Indian- held Jammu and Kashmir and less than half that number in Pakistani-assisted Azad Kashmir, when there are so many problems that confront both nations and that merit their unifocal attention. In Lahore, on November 20, addressing a South Asian Free Media Conference, President Pervez Musharraf articulated his own position on the problem with a sabre-like sharpness. He spoke to an audience that comprised journalists from every country in the region, with a distinctive contingent from India. He began by saying that there had been a perception that his remarks at a recent Iftar party in Islamabad about a new way of looking at the Jammu and Kashmir problem were 'off the cuff.' Quite the contrary, he said. 'Whatever I say, I think through clearly beforehand'. Therefore, his proposal regarding Kashmir was intentional. It should be considered not as one geographical contiguity but as seven separate components - five on the Indian side and two on the Pakistani side - that could be gradually demilitarized and given local autonomy. He explained that by identifying these seven districts, he was merely recognizing the 'geographic, ethnic and religious realities' on the ground. In his mind, the knot was not one single rope but seven skeins that could be unravelled separately. He went on to assert that Kashmir remained the core issue so far as he was concerned, and he rejected absolutely India's attempt to hide Jammu and Kashmir behind the veil of the Indian constitution. Looking over his shoulder at the banner that advertised 'Media and Reconciliation in South Asia', he suggested that Saarc should be the forum for resolving regional conflicts, and quoted the adage of the damage caused to the grass when two elephants fight or make love. The Sri Lankan president of the Safma chapter lightened the president's mood by speaking on behalf of the downtrodden grass. As President Musharraf left the hall, he was thronged by many of the Indian journalists. He answered their questions candidly but after he had departed, and even more so after they heard the Foreign Minister Mian Khurshid Kasuri the following day, they were perplexed as to which was Pakistan's real stand. Was the government a talkative hawk or a dove cooing conciliation? Or is it in fact a hybrid - a cooing hawk? 'Your president spoke of a two-pronged pincer movement as being a sound military strategy,' one of the Indian journalists asked afterwards. 'Could he be applying a similar tactic to us?' The confusion of the Indian journalists was understandable. They could see Pakistan's diplomacy being practised, like Japanese golfers refine their swing strokes, at different levels. At one level, the foreign minister speaks on behalf of his ministry; at a higher level, the prime minister speaks on behalf of the country; at the uppermost storey, the president speaks on behalf of and above both. It has become a feature of the president's style of governance that he reserves the right to ration the credibility of his subordinates. When Mr Kasuri left on his first tour of the United States after he had taken over as foreign minister, President Musharraf let it be known that there should be no great expectations from such a visit. Similarly, by speaking so forthrightly about the Jammu and Kashmir problem before his prime minister left for New Delhi, he strapped Shaukat Aziz in a diplomatic straitjacket, restricting any attempt at manoeuvrability. The foreign ministry might have argued, had they been consulted, that the proper conduit through which President Musharraf should have floated his idea of Saarc becoming a Regional court of justice ought to have been the outgoing chairman of Saarc, who happened to be the prime minister of Pakistan. By speaking though before his PM left for New Delhi, Musharraf ensured that his offer was stale before it reached the table. By conducting foreign policy himself, the president has become the voice and his subordinates its multiple echoes. That can be both an advantage in terms of clarity and singularity of thought, and a disadvantage because it does not come with the parachute of a fall-back position. One senses from his frequent 'on-the-cuff' remarks that the president expects his audiences - whether Indians or his own Pakistanis - to be able to distinguish between his postures and his position, the inflexibility of one and the malleability of the other. Publicly, he speaks as if he would rather break than bend over Kashmir; privately, he explains that his latest proposals are negotiable, and his ideas are floated not to evoke a response from the Indians but to invite opinions from his own people. Just how the Pakistani public is expected to convey its opinion on any new options on Azad Kashmir-Jammu and Kashmir is unclear. Is it through a referendum? Is it to be through a debate in the National Assembly and the Senate? Or is it to be through the pens of columnists who must somehow mould or divine the thoughts of their readership? How will these options - subsurface, if they do exist - rise to the level of the president, or will the solution simply trickle downwards, as do all other matters of public interest? An axiom in Pakistani politics has become that while every public looks up to its leader, every leader talks down to his public. An axiom of Indo-Pakistan relations is the illusion of parity between the two states. In Musharraf's mind, India and Pakistan may be two elephants, but in India's eyes they are pachyderms of unequal size and strength. Pakistan may presume parity with India; India humours by pretending parity with Pakistan. There are some people who foresee the issues in the subcontinent as being less geo-political than geophysical. Geography and topography will count more than electoral geometry. Nuclear capability notwithstanding, the new weapons in any future debates and conflicts will be water, arable land, natural resources, the environment, technical knowledge and superior expertise. Meanwhile, as Alexanders on both sides continue to find a way of striking at the Gordian knot, at a lower level cross-border visits by Indians and Pakistanis have succeeded in gnawing away at these knots so effectively that there may never be the need in the future to use a sword.