Yesterday I received an email response from an Indian Express reader in Pakistan, Shaukatullah Khan, to my piece of September 21, ‘‘Whither the Peace Process?’’ Shaukatullah accused me of ‘‘toeing the line’’ of the Indian Government by talking about CBMs without discussing the settlement of the Kashmir dispute. ‘‘People in Pakistan will not fall in the trap of pulling on the cord of peace process and endless negotiations lest our nukes be rusted,’’ he concluded darkly.
The reason why I have not discussed possible settlements in these pages (though I have in various other fora, including a book) is, first of all, that Prime Minister Singh and President Musharraf have already indicated the broad contours of a settlement based on making the LOC ‘‘irrelevant.’’ How this goal is to be achieved and what the details of a lasting settlement should be are matters that need to emerge out of wide-ranging consultations with, and between, India, Pakistan and the people of the former princely state of Kashmir. Attempts to preempt that process through the public space of OpEds could be counterproductive. As it is we South Asians are endemically suspicious. If the political actors in this peace process are considered to be following a prearranged plan they will fear loss of credibility, and their political will, which is never as strong as we in the public wish, is likely to weaken further.
This is not to say that there should be no discussion of a settlement. Without such a discussion many in Kashmir will doubt that India and Pakistan are serious in their pursuit of peace — and many in Pakistan will accuse General Musharraf of buckling under pressure.
But we need to distinguish between what should be discussed in private, between the leaders and their back channel envoys, and what should be debated in public. We are still in the stage of unfolding a peace process, when substantial discussion of a settlement has taken place between Prime Minister Singh and President Musharraf, and presumably between the Hurriyat and President Musharraf, but is yet to take place between the Hurriyat and Prime Minister Singh.
The peace processes that result in a lasting solution generally conform to a pattern. In stage one there are secret negotiations between the concerned governments, separatist leaders and armed groups, in which the key elements of a settlement are broadly agreed. These are followed by a comprehensive cease-fire and cessation of all hostilities, including hate speech.
In stage two the focus shifts to concrete confidence-building measures, such as reduction of troops, release of political prisoners and punishment of human rights violations, in tandem with more visible political negotiations for a settlement in which all the different parties are involved. Civil society support is critical at this point; it provides both a public constituency for reform and acts as a control on politicians seeking advantage.
Stage three is when the parties unveil a comprehensive and detailed settlement, including the disbanding and rehabilitation of militias, and begin to implement the peace agreement.
The Kashmir peace process has not followed this pattern. We have taken some elements from stages one and two, without completing either. There is no cease-fire, and whatever secret negotiations there are with armed groups have not yielded fruit. Without a full cessation of hostilities the measures we are taking from stage two, such as troops’ reduction and prisoner releases, are bound to be partial and reversible.
To begin public discussion of a comprehensive settlement at this point will only compound the muddle. Worse, it might narrow the options for a settlement. At present, the armed groups have a veto over the peace process – they can always resort to violence to disrupt or end it. They will have the same kind of veto over a comprehensive settlement if negotiations towards one take place without a cease-fire.
Moreover, we have just begun to widen the talks’ process so that the political elements amongst the separatists, such as the Hurriyat, gain over the military elements that continue to oppose peace. Here the next step is to make the talks more inclusive, by bringing in elected leaders and civil society, in order that discussions towards a settlement have wide public support.
India and Pakistan messed up the autonomy option by making it conditional, and negotiating it in the context of violence. Neither country can afford to repeat this mistake. If they muddy the options that are available today, Kashmir could go the route of Chechnya or Palestine, both eventualities to be devoutly shunned.
In this context, India has another quick decision to make. The deadline for a Congress takeover in Kashmir is fast approaching. I hold no brief for the Mufti government, but continuity can be important when there is a critical peace process underway. I do hope the pros and cons of a takeover are being carefully weighed by our Prime Minister.