The debate must continue

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

The national debate on Kashmir which President Pervez Musharraf had called for appears to be running out of steam. Now the president, who saw light at the end of the tunnel only a few weeks ago, has been speaking of vibes that are not “encouraging” from India.

A month ago – on October 25 to be precise – the president had suggested at an Iftar party that new options be explored since the status quo in Kashmir was unacceptable. To kickstart the debate he had suggested that various regions in Kashmir be identified in terms of their local culture and demographic composition and then be demilitarized.

Subsequently, it should be decided under whose control these areas should be. He also said that there could be joint India-Pakistan control or the United Nations could be asked to play a role.

The president described his proposal as “just a food for thought”. That is precisely what it could have been considering that it was floated off the cuff at an Iftar party which was hardly a place for formal discussions on Kashmir.

Explaining his move to a conference of South Asian journalists in Lahore last Saturday, he said there were two reasons why he had suggested an open debate on various options on Kashmir.

One, he had never been able to elicit a tangible solution from numerous Pakistanis, Indians and Kashmiris he had spoken to. Hence he had broadly formulated some options to give a direction to the debate. Second, it would give the leaders in India and Pakistan a feel of public opinion before they got down to discussing the Kashmir issue.

This is a rational explanation. But what is difficult to understand is why the president and his colleagues in the government had to jump into the fray when the debate got going.

In fact, the Indian prime minister initially adopted a sensible approach when he responded by saying that he was prepared to discuss President Musharraf’s proposals as part of their composite dialogue but no good would come out of conducting the talks through the media.

By keeping the limelight on himself, the president has subsequently found himself in the unenviable position of defending his stance. Since the proposal was first floated, the government has come under attack from the opposition.

And a spate of statements from official quarters has followed reaffirming that Islamabad had not given up its principled stand on Kashmir. Within a week of his earlier proposal, President Musharraf strongly reiterated that there would be no sell-out on Kashmir.

When he had called for a public debate he had not spelt out a solution. In the following weeks, he retracted from the bold stand he had taken and for which he had won public acclaim.

The fact is that if there is to be a meaningful resolution of the Kashmir dispute, the two sides will have to move away from their conventional positions. With the status quo favouring India, and the balance of power in South Asia not tilting heavily towards Pakistan, we cannot expect New Delhi to agree to change the status quo.

The initiative taken by President Musharraf that had promised to make a headway towards peace in the region appears to be losing its promise. The president, who was until a short time ago speaking about seeing light at the end of the tunnel, now says the light is fading.

It is a pity if this opportunity for peace is wasted. The president should realize that at a time when critical issues are under discussion, the more discreet he and other government leaders are in issuing statements about Kashmir and India the lesser are the chances of jeopardizing the fledgling peace initiative.

Let the people debate the options. The governments on both sides should stay out of this exercise which takes place in the limelight of the media. It is inevitable that when either of the two governments feels obliged to defend its position, it has to take a hawkish stance.

Even though its reply may be directed at its domestic audience, the government ends up provoking the other side into reiterating its stance. For India, Kashmir remains an integral part of the Indian Union.

For Pakistan it is the oft repeated demand for a plebiscite in the disputed territory. This helps no one at all while it results in a hardening of the positions of the two sides which makes a solution all the more elusive.

Both India and Pakistan have still to learn from the experience of the governments which have negotiated tricky issues and managed to reach a settlement. The American government negotiated secretly with the Vietcong in Paris for three years before the war in Vietnam ended.

Again, it took the United States eight years after Henry Kissinger had paid his secret visit to Beijing in 1971 to establish diplomatic relations with China. The now defunct Oslo Accord between the Palestinians and the Israelis came after three years of quiet diplomacy.

It takes time to untangle the complex knots which make a dispute of long standing so intractable. But in the period that the two governments are struggling to resolve their differences, wisdom demands that they observe a discreet silence on the issues being debated. Journalists will ask questions. It is their job.

A government upholding the freedom of the press will not try to muzzle their voice. But it should know the art of parrying their questions and be skilful in giving evasive replies.

Hence, the debate which has been prodded by the president should be allowed to go on without the active intervention of the government. It has already had the positive effect of getting the Indian prime minister’s office to respond by putting forward its own proposals.

They are not exactly what the Pakistan government may jump at. But they definitely are a shift from India’s own long standing position, that is, Kashmir is an integral part of India and not negotiable. The prime minister’s office in New Delhi has called for “self rule” in both parts of Kashmir and “open borders” between them.

If both the governments let the political parties, the public and the media in their own countries pick up the thread from here, it may be possible for the diplomats when they meet in the next round of the composite dialogue to negotiate quietly and evolve a new formula based on the positive features of both proposals.