Will it affect the dialogue?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

WHEN the natural elements strike they show no respect for man-made borders. The earthquake which devastated Muzaffarabad and other adjoining areas of Kashmir on October 8 similarly made no distinction in wreaking havoc on the region. If there were casualties and devastation in Azad Kashmir, the Indian-held valley also suffered.

For the time being this calamity swept the news of the India-Pakistan dialogue off the front pages of newspapers and from the television screens. Understandably so. The magnitude of this disaster focused the stunned public’s attention and the government’s efforts on the urgency of the relief and rescue operations.

The reaction of the Pakistan and Indian governments in the context of the Kashmir dispute was interesting and spoke volumes about their approach to this question. In this hour of crisis when the Pakistan government faced its biggest challenge, initially its response was one of shock as the magnitude of the disaster unfolded. Hence diplomatic and strategic niceties seem to have been set aside.

The Kashmiris from both sides of the LoC who had been stranded — the recently launched Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service was disrupted by the earthquake — were allowed to cross the Line of Control to return home. There was also the report — since denied by Pakistan but confirmed by India — of the Indian army personnel having crossed the LoC to help the Pakistani soldiers who had also been affected by this natural calamity.

We shall never know the true position but the general feeling is that in trying times such as these even the staunchest of rivals set aside politics and strategic positions to join hands to work together for the benefit of the common man. Although in this case the area was disputed territory, it did not justify imposing additional hardships on the people by keeping the Indians out of the relief operations.

Many areas in the north that were inaccessible from the Azad Kashmir side could be reached from across the LoC. India offered to airlift rescue and relief missions from its side but Pakistan did not respond to the offer and continued to incur a heavy toll. Was such insensitivity justified in the face of the priority to save human lives?

Better sense prevailed subsequently. Pakistan sought and obtained permission to fly its relief helicopters through the forbidden no-fly zone along the LoC to access the remote areas in Azad Kashmir. India offered aid immediately after the earthquake, though Pakistan was initially hesitant to accept it. Now two consignments of aid have arrived from India and more are expected. The initial hesitation was not understandable when a positive precedent had already been set in 2001, the year when a high-intensity earthquake had devastated Ahmedabad, and Islamabad had sent aid for the victims.

It is strange that in the ensuing chaos and panic that gripped Azad Kashmir, our policy planners still had the concentration of mind for hair splitting arguments and knee jerk responses in the light of diplomatic sensitivities vis-a-vis India and Indian-held Kashmir. At a time when the whole nation had rallied behind the government, any unconventional move by the government would not have evoked the negative reaction it is normally wary about. This was the time for testing the waters on two counts. How far India could be expected to go on Kashmir and how much leeway Pakistan’s own public opinion would allow. Regrettably, this opportunity was wasted. Even the people-to-people diplomacy which has done so much to create confidence among the common man on both sides of the border could not help much because without the government’s permission no Indian relief worker could join relief operations in Azad Kashmir.

This circumspection has certainly raised scepticism about the Kashmir item on the agenda of the India-Pakistan composite dialogue. If neither of the two sides is prepared to budge from its intractable stance, is there any hope for meaningful negotiations? Another complicating factor appears to be the role of the militants — which has provided India the pretext from time to time to stall the dialogue on Kashmir. Some reports said that a few training camps of the banned Lashkar-i-Taiba and Hizb-i-Mujahideen were destroyed by the earthquake. Nothing has so far been heard of any role these groups might have played in the relief operations and India reported clashes with some militants in the valley in the post-earthquake days.

It might be recalled that a day before the earthquake, the foreign office in Islamabad and the external affairs ministry in New Delhi had commented on the observations made by Pakistan’s minister for Kashmir Affairs, Faisal Saleh Hayat, confirming that the two sides were discussing several options to lower tensions in both parts of Kashmir. India categorically denied that it was involved in any discussions with Islamabad on changing the status of Jammu and Kashmir.

With the composite dialogue now set for its third round in January, and so much of to and fro movement between India and Pakistan, and between the two parts of Kashmir, it is unlikely that the leaders are discussing only the weather. After having proclaimed Kashmir to be an integral part of the Indian Union for 50 years, New Delhi now finds it difficult to perform a turnaround and concede that it is considering a change in the future status of Kashmir.

Pakistan has wisely deemed it fit for the first time in over five decades to shift from its position demanding a plebiscite in Kashmir to determine its political status. The UNCIP resolutions that provided the ground for a plebiscite under the United Nations’ aegis have failed to hold the interest of most UN members. They can no longer resolve the dispute on Kashmir. With India strongly entrenched in the Valley and Pakistan having failed to wrench the disputed territory, there is only one option left. It can attempt to change the status quo in Kashmir through political means.

India has also had to shift positions. Previously, it would categorically refuse to discuss the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan declaring it to be an integral part of the Indian Union. But now Kashmir has been explicitly included in the agenda of the composite dialogue. The joint statement issued on October 4 from Islamabad where Foreign Minister Natwar Singh had held talks with Mr Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri clearly said, “Possible options for a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the issue of Jammu and Kashmir should be explored in a sincere, purposeful and forward looking manner.”

New Delhi probably feels it would be premature to stoke a debate on the issue in the country at the moment when the two sides have yet to agree on a mechanism to include the Kashmiri leadership in the dialogue process. Against this backdrop, New Delhi simply wants to adopt a low key approach. But issues are being discussed, it cannot be denied, between the governments in New Delhi and Islamabad at all levels, between the Kashmir leaders and India and Pakistan and among the Kashmiris from both sides of the LoC.

According to Mr Hayat, who spoke to The Asian Age in New Delhi, three key options are under discussion. Firstly, joint control of Kashmir as a single unified territory. Secondly, limited sovereignty, that would give financial, budgetary and local government’s powers to the administration in Kashmir, with defence, currency and foreign affairs in the hands of India and Pakistan. Thirdly, the devolution formula that envisages the expansion of the powers of the local government.

What is more significant is that for the first time the Kashmiris from the Valley, Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas (Gilgit and Baltistan) have been actively participating in a dialogue among themselves, and separately with New Delhi and Islamabad. Three intra-Kashmir “heart-to-heart” conferences have been held in Srinagar, Jammu and New Delhi in July and September. These have allowed the various Kashmiri parties which are not a monolithic group to articulate their views and bridge the gaps between themselves.

If they fail to evolve a consensus on a common position they will jeopardize the composite dialogue now that New Delhi and Islamabad realize that no settlement they may negotiate can be effectively implemented without the agreement of the people of Kashmir. Their two major demands have been: first, military disengagement from the state and second, loosening of controls on the intra-Kashmir movement and communication across the LoC to create soft borders. Now with the Mir Waiz, the chief of the APHC, saying that India and Pakistan are playing politics with earthquake relief and have missed a great opportunity to build closer ties in a time of tragedy, one wonders if the two sides are ready to take the leap.