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Meanwhile, let us hope for a breakthrough

Prime Minister Vajpayee’s speech in Srinagar — and his later elaboration on key points — together with Pakistan’s welcom...

Prime Minister Vajpayee’s speech in Srinagar — and his later elaboration on key points — together with Pakistan’s welcoming of it, raise new hopes for a breakthrough in the tense standoff between the two countries.

Vajpayee indicated that his government did not demand a complete end to ‘‘cross-border terrorism’’ before opening talks with Pakistan, but did require a Pakistani commitment to crack down on groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad. Responding on NDTV, Sheikh Rashid denied that Pakistan engaged in cross border terrorism but hastily added, ‘‘We said that we did not support it a year ago.’’

He was referring to General Musharraf’s speech of January 2002, vowing that Pakistan’s soil would not be used for terrorism against other countries. That speech was followed by the arrest of 2,000 Lashkar and Jaish activists, most of whom were released three months later without any charges being filed against them.

They might not have been released if India had responded to General Musharraf’s arrests with talks on what the next steps should be. In this sense, Vajpayee’s speech is a reassurance that India will respond this time, ‘‘within twenty-four hours’’ he says.

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There are other straws in the wind too. The US-UK call for a comprehensive ceasefire after the Nadimarg massacre was more specific than prior calls. Coupled with the admission by Richard Haass, Head of Policy Planning at the US State Department, that the US had not been able to get Pakistan to crack down effectively on ‘‘cross-border infiltration’’, it reflects a growing international consensus on two points.

First, Pakistan has a key role to play in ending the violence in Kashmir. Second, ending the violence will be step by step, and India has a key role to play in insuring the steps through reciprocity and incentives. In effect this is an endorsement of the policy Vajpayee developed during and between the Lahore and Agra summits. At Lahore, Vajpayee’s goal was to focus on creating an environment in which Kashmir could eventually be tackled, by first improving trade relations and people to people exchanges. At Agra, Vajpayee’s goal was to end the violence in Kashmir, while seeking an eventual settlement based on open borders.

Now it looks as if the two approaches could come together. A few weeks ago, Pakistan made a small but significant gesture in saying they would allow Indian goods to Afghanistan transit through Wagah. In his interview, Sheikh Rashid said Pakistan would talk to India on ‘‘all issues, including Kashmir’’.

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Is it too much to hope that this could translate into substantive economic discussion at the forthcoming SAARC summit? Whether Pakistan will make a gesture similar to that of January 2002 is doubtful, though I am keeping my fingers crossed.

Militant groups in Pakistan vehemently oppose any Pakistani peace initiatives, and the Hurriyat and the Hizbul Mujahedeen called a general strike during Vajpayee’s visit.

But if the Hurriyat indicates that they are open to talks with the Indian envoy, N N Vohra, then the option should be pursued even if a strike may not be the best way of asking for an invitation to dialogue. If the Hurriyat can wrest a ceasefire from the mujahideen groups then they deserve a place at the table, however it is constituted.

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As the voice of the separatists, they have a special responsibility to counter ethnic cleansing or its toleration by Kashmiri Muslims, but they cannot fulfill that responsibility unless the Kashmir government asks them to work with them.

In the run up to Agra, Vajpayee had offered a package of reciprocal measures if Pakistan helped end the violence, including steps to soften the partition of Kashmir through visa offices on the Line of Control, and joint patrols of the Line of Control. A reiteration of the vision of those days might provide added reassurance for Pakistan.

This may appear to be a lot to ask of India when Pakistan has conducted a ten-year-long covert war against it. But for Pakistan it also means a ten-year-investment to give up, however illegal. India has drawn parallels between Iraq and Pakistan and many Indians have complained of US double standards in denying the comparison. On one case, however, there is no double standard. The US has had to live with Pakistani support for Al-Qaeda and Pakistani attacks on American citizens in order to pursue a dogged hunt for Al-Qaeda leaders and operatives. True, of a much lower scale than India has faced and without government support.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow of Peace and Conflict Studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations)

First published on: 23-04-2003 at 00:00 IST
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