Too many problems at home,Sharif govt puts Kashmir on backburner

Too many problems at home,Sharif govt puts Kashmir on backburner

‘Survival number one priority’ in Pakistan amid US drone attacks,energy crisis and homegrown terror

Nawaz Sharif’s move to go out of his way to offer friendship to New Delhi even before the votes were counted in an election where Kashmir didn’t figure at all represents a new ground reality in Pakistan. There is a Kashmir fatigue within Pakistan’s India discourse,largely because Pakistan is embroiled in more urgent and immediate issues. But if Sharif fails to deliver on his poll promises — a quick resolution of the energy crisis,the end of Tehreek-e-Taliban terror and a halt to US drone attacks — the mood on the ground could shift.

Though the predominant narrative inside Pakistan is that people don’t care about sidestepping of Kashmir,it isn’t an absolute consensus — and these fissures would become more evident if Islamabad fails to tackle the other pressing issues.

“The failure of our governments has compelled us to make existence and survival the number one priority,” said 28-year-old Afshan Rafiq,who won’t name the multinational company she works for in Lahore. “Who will spend time thinking about Kashmir when we are forced to live 18 hours without electricity? India is doing well and we know we also have a genuine possibility of a prosperous life. Kashmir isn’t an issue for my friends or me. We are facing much bigger issues.”

It’s not just the chattering classes. Politicians of most leading parties — except Jamat-e-Islami and other religious groups — feel the same,and this is the reason behind the near absence of Kashmir during the high-voltage poll campaign. “There were references to Kashmir in the manifestos of parties but nobody except Jamat-e-Islami raised Kashmir during their campaign,” United Jihad Council chief Syed Salahuddin told The Indian Express during an interview in Islamabad. “There was just lip-service on Kashmir and we have lodged a strong protest over it.”


However,senior PML(N) leader and Sharif confidant Pervaiz Rashid (now information and broadcasting minister) believes the party’s stand reflects what the Pakistani people want. “In 1997,Nawaz Sharif said the same thing — his emphasis was on friendship with India. In 1997,he said that the only way to resolve issues was through negotiations. We got a two-thirds majority. We said the same thing during this campaign again. You should appreciate that our political party sticks to its belief in negotiated settlements,” he said.

Rashid added that he hoped New Delhi would respond in kind. “We are convinced there is a need for a proper and thorough investigation into the Mumbai attacks. The spirit of friendship that we are showing must get a positive response from India. We have concluded that politics can be successfully done without India bashing; India too needs to move away from Pakistan bashing.”

Salahuddin isn’t the only separatist upset with the stance. In his first congratulatory message sent to Sharif on his election,senior Hurriyat leader in Pakistan Farooq Rehmani warned the new premier against advocating “close trade and cultural relations with India at the cost of the right of self-determination of Jammu and Kashmir”. He said that when the US invaded Afganistan,“exploiting Pakistan as a front-line satellite country”,Islamabad had “preferred to start commercial and cultural CBMs (confidence-building measures) along the Line of Control instead of using this occasion for resolving the Kashmir dispute” with India. Rehmani feared this was happening again.

There is little doubt that the rethink on Kashmir in Pakistan began soon after 9/11. Then president Pervez Musharraf started cracking down on Pakistan-based groups operating in Kashmir after announcing his government’s policy shift in January 2002. In fact,Musharraf was the first ever Pakistani ruler to publicly abandon the applicability of the United Nations resolutions on Kashmir,promising not to allow Pakistani soil for attacks on India. The Pakistan People’s Party government that took over after the 2008 elections stuck to this.

“Musharraf once called us to discuss Kashmir and we were shocked when he told us we should not keep harping on human rights abuses in Kashmir,” a well-known Kashmiri leader living in Pakistan said. “He said Pakistan needs a solution for Kashmir at any cost and asked us to not create hassles in his efforts.”

However,the Kashmiri leader believes that any initiative will fail — largely because of India. “India didn’t even reciprocate to Musharraf who had given up Pakistan’s traditional Kashmir stance,” he said.

Noted journalist and head of Geo TV’s Lahore operations Khawar Nayeem Hashmi said that while advocating a Kashmir solution,the pressing issues plaguing Sharif also mean it is unlikely he would aggressively pursue the former. “He (Sharif) will try to push for dialogue with India. But I don’t see him proactive on Kashmir. It isn’t a big priority for his government. They will first have to find a solution to power outages to provide some semblance of good governance,” he said,particularly emphasising a tough stance by Islamabad on the US drone attacks.

Still,as a small businessman from Lahore put it,it’s only so far that the Sharif government can ignore Kashmir. “Nobody here stays in power if they say let India keep Kashmir. If that were possible,our relations with India would have been different,” said Arif Mohammad Bhati. “The issue of Kashmir defines Pakistan. How can we surrender it? Even silence won’t be acceptable.”