The good news that India and Pakistan will resume their “comprehensive bilateral dialogue” should be greeted with careful expectations about the road ahead. The revival of the dialogue, which covers a multitude of issues, including counter-terrorism, economic and commercial cooperation, humanitarian issues, border arguments and the future of Kashmir, was made in Islamabad on December 9, after a two- year hiatus. The announcement followed a series of quiet meetings between the leadership of the two countries in the last month.
The key to the breakthrough appears to be a Pakistani commitment to move forward with bringing to justice the perpetrators of the November 26, 2008 attack on Mumbai. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had promised Washington during his visit last month that Pakistan would take action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the group responsible for the attack. Since the head of the LeT, Hafiz Saeed, operates openly in Pakistan and enjoys the strong support of Pakistani intelligence, many in India are understandably sceptical that Nawaz can deliver. Let us see if he can.
If Pakistan does take concrete and verifiable actions against the LeT, the burden will quickly move to trying to find some movement on the most contentious issue of them all, the future of Jammu and Kashmir. No one expects an early breakthrough on that score, but there are useful lessons to be learned by reviewing the one previous intensive eff-ort to resolve the conflict.
That was in the wake of the 1962 Chinese invasion of India. In 1962, one of US President John F. Kennedy’s most serious challenges during the Sino-Indian war was to keep Pakistan from opening a second front against India. Then Pakistan President Ayub Khan told Kennedy that he wanted “compensation” from India in Kashmir for Pakistan’s neutrality during the war. Kennedy made clear to Ayub that no such compensation would be tolerated, and that Pakistani intervention in the war in the Himalayas would be seen by Washington as a hostile act. After the war ended in November, Kennedy did encourage India-Pakistan talks on Kashmir that went on for six rounds through 1963.
Kennedy’s ambassador in New Delhi, John Kenneth Galbraith, quietly advised the president that then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru would never accept a territorial settlement of Kashmir; at most, Nehru might allow Muslims in Kashmir some cultural autonomy within the Indian state. This arrangement would be similar to that in the Saar region in Germany, which is German sovereign territory, but where French is commonly spoken and French culture is evident. He predicted that a diplomatic effort to coax a settlement on Kashmir would not only fail but also erode the positive Indian image of the United States after the war due to the airlift of the military supplies Kennedy had ordered during the fighting. Galbraith warned that the Chinese were still the main danger to India.
Ignoring Galbraith’s recommendation and yielding to pressure from Britain, Kennedy decided to try to bring about a Kashmir settlement. This decision suited his preference for activism in foreign policy. American and British diplomats shuttled between Nehru and Ayub, and secured an agreement to start bilateral negotiations on December 27, 1962 in Rawalpindi. However, on the eve of the talks, Pakistan announced that it had reached a border agreement with China on their common border in Kashmir. Under the deal, Pakistan gained control of almost 2,000 square kilometres that China had been occupying since the late 1940s; in turn, China got formal accession and official title to a slightly larger amount of territory. By making a formal border treaty, Pakistan and China set the stage for their future infrastructure projects in the area, such as the Karakorum highway, which would bind the two countries closer together.
The Indians rightly cried foul: Pakistan was preparing to negotiate with India on the future of Kashmir, but then secretly made a deal with China on the borders of the same state. India claimed that the territory Pakistan was ceding to China was actually Indian land, not Pakistani or Chinese. It had just fought a war to keep China from gaining Kashmiri land, and now Pakistan had agreed to a deal that would give part of Kashmir to China. Galbraith noted to Kennedy that the prospects for the India-Pakistan talks were now even more hopeless.
Despite India’s sense of betrayal by the Pakistan deal with China, the Kashmir talks went on for a total of six sessions, alternating between Pakistan and India. The American president wrote to both leaders more than once to try to persuade them to reach a compromise. When Pakistan put on the table its demands for a territorial settlement, the process collapsed.
The lessons of this history are still relevant today. A territorial settlement between India and Pakistan remains a bridge too far. The focus should be on much more tangible achievements aimed at improving the life of Kashmiris on both sides of the border, and de-escalating tensions. Here again, tangible action by Pakistan against the LeT and other terrorists should be a priority.
A second lesson is that there are powerful forces in Pakistan who want to scuttle any dialogue. In 1962, this was manifest in the secret deal with China. In 1999, after the Lahore summit, it was manifested in the Kargil plot led by General Pervez Musharraf. In 2008, after another détente seemed in the works, it was manifested in the Mumbai attacks. In other words, prudent planners should expect that progress on the diplomatic front, even small steps, may provoke a counter reaction.
Nonetheless, the news of a resumed dialogue is very much welcome. Let us hope that action will follow.