June 7, 2010 12:00:27 am
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,who has invested so much of his political energy in addressing one of Indias most challenging inheritances in Jammu and Kashmir during the last six years,should take another shot at reviving the peace process during his visit to Srinagar on Monday. In acting boldly now,the PM could convert one of Indias biggest vulnerabilities into a pivot that can transform the nations security condition.
The improvement in Indias external environment in the last few weeks provides Dr Singh with a rare opportunity in Jammu and Kashmir. When the PM last visited the state in October 2009,Indias relations with the three external players in Kashmir Pakistan,the United States and China were all up in the air.
Dr Singhs attempt to renew the dialogue with Pakistan at Sharm-el-Sheikh,on the margins of the non-aligned summit last July,drew an intense negative reaction at home. With the scars from the Mumbai attacks on 26/11 remaining so raw,the PM had no option but to put his peace project on hold.
As the new U.S. president Barack Obama reviewed Americas Afghan policy in Washington,trouble loomed large for India. A section of the Obama Administration was ready to stake it all on expanded cooperation with the Pak Army. As the GHQ in Rawalpindi sensed the growing American vulnerability in Afghanistan and sought to leverage it against India,it had no apparent incentive to renew the peace process with Delhi.
When we think of the external dimensions of the Kashmir problem,only Pakistan and the United States come to our mind. But China too is involved in Kashmir in more ways than one. For one,China sits on nearly 38,000 sq km of territory that is claimed by India in Jammu and Kashmir. For another,Indias current borders with Pakistan and China meet in Kashmir. As Indias relations with China deteriorated rapidly during 2008-09 over Tibet and the Dalai Lama,Beijing reminded Delhi not only of its two-front problem but also the many other troubles it can create by issuing visas on separate sheets for Indian citizens from Kashmir.
If Indias external space on Kashmir seemed to shrink rapidly when the PM inaugurated the Anantnag-Qazigund rail link last October,this time around there is a perceptible thaw in Indias ties with Islamabad,Washington and Beijing.
In his productive meeting with the Pakistani premier Yousaf Raza Gilani at Thimphu in April,Dr Singh developed a new road map for a restoration of mutual confidence and the resumption of the bilateral dialogue. Home Minister P. Chidambaram and External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna will travel to Islamabad in the next few weeks to clear the post-Mumbai detritus in bilateral relations.
Meanwhile the PMs engagement with President Obama since last November when he was received as the first state guest at the White House has helped raise Washingtons awareness of the negative consequences for India of his administrations Af-Pak strategy and arrest the drift in bilateral relations.
Last week at the first round of the strategic dialogue,the Obama administration gave firm assurances that it will not inject itself into Pakistans disputes with India on Kashmir and Afghanistan. The administration has also promised to maintain pressure on Pakistan to stop its support to anti-India terror groups,some of which,like the Lashkar-e-Toiba,now threaten the United States as well.
Finally,Indias relations with China have shown a significant improvement since last December when Dr Singh and the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao rediscovered the spirit of bilateral cooperation at the Copenhagen summit on climate change. President Prathibha Patils visit to China last month appears to have put bilateral ties back on track.
Dr Singh cant expect that these favourable international circumstances will last for too long. Acting now could help India synergise the current positive external environment with the prospect for promoting positive change in Kashmir and relations with Pakistan. If does choose to move forward,two sets of initiatives present themselves to the PM.
The first is in relation to altering the disposition of the security forces in Kashmir. There is growing restiveness in J&K about the widespread human rights violations and the persistent harassment of ordinary citizens by the security forces.
While the UPA government did announce a reduction of about 30,000 troops in J&K a few weeks after the October visit,much more can be done to win the trust of the people. Many additional steps are possible,and should include the possible withdrawal of troops from major urban centres,a modification of the armed forces special powers act,and its eventual withdrawal from the state.
A second set relates to contact and communication across the Line of Control in J& K. As he rightly took credit for the unprecedented cross-LoC initiatives his government had launched in the first term of the UPA government,the PM recognised that they were not as people-friendly as they could be. Dr Singh conceded that trade facilities at the border are inadequate. There are no banking channels. Customs facilities need to be strengthened. There are no trade fairs. The lists of tradable commodities need to be increased. Clearances for travel take time.
Dr Singh had said he was prepared to discuss these humanitarian issues with Islamabad even before a formal dialogue between the two sides could be renewed. In the post-Thimphu environment,the PM should offer to begin talks immediately with Pakistan on cross-LoC confidence building measures as part of the current mutually agreed effort to reduce trust deficit between the two countries.
The PM,more than any one else in Delhi,knows the perils of failing to act in time. During 2005-07,he had launched India on a consequential engagement with Pakistan. But Delhis indecisiveness at crucial moments prevented the consolidation of the significant progress made on Kashmir. Dr Singh and the nation cant afford to repeat that error again.
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