Between India And 21st Century, A Deep Valley
13 February 2005
The Indian Express
New Delhi: When was the last time you read about Kashmir in this column? The truth is I cannot remember when I last mentioned the K word in this space because columns need to be read to survive and I find, increasingly, that if you travel south of Delhi there are so few Indians interested in the subject that I hesitate to write about what Sonia Gandhi accurately described as our 'eternal problem' with Pakistan. In complete contrast, on the other side of the border, the interest in Kashmir is almost a national obsession and this creates a difficult asymmetry in the relationship that makes peace and friendship harder to achieve. This is a good week to discuss peace, friendship and Kashmir because next week our Foreign Minister is off to Islamabad for another round of talks and also because when I was in Davos a couple of weeks ago I picked up from officials who accompanied the Pakistani Prime Minister that there was a measure of disappointment with our new government's approach. On a cold and snowy morning I attended a breakfast meeting with Shaukat Aziz and as he came with several ministers and officials in tow, conversations about the state of our eternally fraught relationship became inevitable. So, how are things going between us now that there is a new government in Delhi, I asked a senior Pakistani official. The official who shall remain nameless thought for a moment then said, 'Let me put it this way. Our perception is that Atal Behari Vajpayee was clearly committed to bringing about peace. With this government we get a sense that the commitment is more lukewarm.' When I relayed this information to South Block on my return to Delhi I was hit with a barrage of measures taken since Dr Manmohan Singh's Government took power. The list has more than 70 items on it so cannot be reproduced here but let me give you a paragraph's worth of flavour. Our Election Commissioners have been fraternising, as have our MPs; Pakistani children are arriving in droves for medical treatment; artistes, writers, poets, musicians from Pakistan are welcome even if Pakistan does not return the gesture; there are measures to cooperate in the fields of information and technology and education; and most importantly (in my view) Pakistani journalists were allowed to visit Kashmir. I consider this most important because I hear from friends in Srinagar that said journalists were quite taken aback to discover that the Hurriyat was not as representative of Kashmiri opinion as they had been given to understand. South Block believes that the peace process is going forward faster than it ever has in 25 years. But, as our Foreign Minister has pointed out before, this is not a 100- metre sprint but a marathon, so it may seem as if things are moving at bullock-cart speed even if they are moving faster than they ever have. South Block would like to see the China syndrome apply in our relations with Pakistan in that we put aside Kashmir, as we did with the border dispute with China, and move forwards in areas where there is no dispute. With China this has worked so well that trade between us and the Chinese was more than $13 billion last year while with Pakistan the figure barely reaches $400 million. South Block, alas, is dreaming if it believes it is possible for Pakistan to put aside Kashmir as China has the border dispute. The two cannot be equated. If you asked an average Chinese in an average Chinese street about the border dispute with India he would almost certainly respond with a baffled stare. In Pakistan it is quite another story. I have talked to ordinary Pakistanis in the streets of Lahore and Karachi and been astounded at the passions the mention of Kashmir arouses. No Pakistani leader can put it aside without risking his job, so we should stop talking about the Chinese model. The problem is if Kashmir is not put aside then we are back to square one. The Pakistanis believe that the only solution acceptable to them is for Kashmir to be handed over and we believe that there is no question of borders being redrawn. So, where do we go from here? Not very far forward because no matter how many artistes and poets we give visas to, no matter how many cricket matches we play and no matter how many politicians hug each other we are still stuck on Kashmir. It is true that the internal situation in the Valley is better now than it has ever been in the past 15 years. Last summer the tourists went back in such large numbers it was hard to find a hotel room or a houseboat in Srinagar. Violence has lessened to such an extent that it sometimes seems as if Naxalite areas in Bihar and Andhra are more disturbed than Kashmir, but all this will make little difference as long as the international dimensions of the Kashmir problem remain unresolved. The only solution, as Farooq Abdullah has pointed out before, is for the LoC to be accepted as the international border and for Kashmir to be given a greater degree of autonomy. Will Pakistan ever accept this? Not in the foreseeable future and so the marathon could go on for quite a distance into the 21st century and our dream of this being India's century will remain a dream. We cannot end extreme poverty or provide our people with 21st-century living standards as long as the wound of Kashmir continues to fester.