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Byline by MJ Akbar

 

  A real chance in

Kashmir

M J Akbar

March 29, 2008

 

Terrorism is an internal threat, and far worse than any external threat could ever be, for the enemy within is always much more dangerous than the enemy without.

 

 
 

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What do Pervez Musharraf, Asif Zardari, Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan, Altaf Hussain (chief of the MQM), Asfandyar Wali Khan (leader of the Awami National Party of the North West Frontier Province, soon to be renamed Pakhtunkhwa) and influential opinion-makers in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad have in common?

 

They have all come to a calculated conclusion: that the Indo-Pak impasse over Kashmir is now seriously detrimental to the economic and strategic health of Pakistan; that Pakistan has been held hostage to the Kashmir dispute and it is time to shake off the fetters of history and move on. These fetters have imprisoned travel and trade between neighbours and placed an expensive and unnecessary, if not quite unbearable, tension on the defence forces of Pakistan. They understand what common sense tells us: that free travel and mutually beneficial trade between India and Pakistan could transform the subcontinent, if not into a modern Europe then at least into the Europe of circa 1955.

 

They may not admit it publicly, but it is likely that the leaders of the Hurriyat in the Kashmir valley accept this privately. President Musharraf is on record as saying that borders do not have to change in any future accord. Zardari has told Karan Thapar in a television interview that Pakistan can no longer be held hostage on Kashmir to the detriment of its economy and defence. Columnists in influential newspapers like Dawn have written that Pakistan needs to break out of this suffocating straitjacket and get on with life. India and Pakistan have invested too much and too long in death.

 

One of the minor tragedies of the Indo-Pak equation is that when one side is ready the other is busy, or seems to be busy: it is easy to manufacture an excuse when you do not want to do anything.

This is not the view merely of an enlightened elite. The street is also tired of a hostility that promises nothing. War may have some meaning, however expensive and disastrous it might be, if there is a possibility of victory. But you do not have to be a strategic egghead to realise that Pakistan cannot capture territory in Kashmir from India. Since India is content with the status quo, it has no desire for a single square inch of "Azad Kashmir". What then is the point of confrontation?

The change on the street is reflected in an interesting shift of perceptions. 2007 was a traumatic year for Pakistan; the Afghan war had spilled over into the west of the country; the people were livid with Musharraf; and the turmoil peaked with the terrible assassination of Benazir Bhutto. But not once in the whole chain of lurching, searing events was India blamed for instigating any trouble. India and Kashmir were totally absent from the rhetoric of the Pakistan elections, for the first time in the nation's electoral history.

That old idiom has worn so thin that it can't be seen anymore. The people know that their problems begin at home and must be addressed there. A self-declared Arab friend of Pakistan was telling me, with despondent acerbity, that the national slogan of Pakistan has changed: "They used to say 'Pakistan Zindabad!' Now they say, 'Pakistan se zinda bhag!'" Terrorism is an internal threat, and far worse than any external threat could ever be, for the enemy within is always much more dangerous than the enemy without.

The solution is not with us yet, but it would be fair to suggest that the Kashmir dispute is over. The mutually-acceptable future border will be the present border: the line where the two armies ceased fire on the first of January 1949, and which they have guarded with such zealous ferocity for six decades. Six decades add up to two generations of lost sisters, forgotten cousins, and a relentless hostility that has aborted the potential of two nations. Everyone has heard the question: why do Indians and Pakistanis get on so well in a third country, and how come they do so well in a foreign habitat? The answer was always simple: because they were not living in India and Pakistan. Over the last decade India has begun to make such jokes irrelevant, but that is nothing compared to what it could achieve in harmony with a natural economic partner like Pakistan. It would vitalise SAARC, and set the subcontinent, which still has the poorest parts of the world on its landscape, on the long route towards self-respect.

Is this column too optimistic? Perhaps. After six decades of pessimism perhaps we should be permitted an hour of optimism. The dynamic of power has changed in Islamabad. While the military-civilian partnership could be fraught with tension in domestic affairs, it is a good fit for India policy. Zardari and Nawaz Sharif are talking the language initiated by Musharraf. (Now that Pakistan has also got a Dr Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister, it is more important to find out Zardari says.)

 

The solution is not with us yet, but it would be fair to suggest that the Kashmir dispute is over.

But of course the moment has to be propitious on both sides. One of the minor tragedies of the Indo-Pak equation is that when one side is ready the other is busy, or seems to be busy: it is easy to manufacture an excuse when you do not want to do anything. However, India is heading into its election season just after Pakistan has cleared its calendar. No one readily fools around with either war or peace on the eve of an election, unless you have become either careless or desperate. Delhi lost a great opportunity when Musharraf was riding high; but even if high drama is not possible, there can be forward movement on trade and travel. But whoever forms the government in Delhi after the next election cannot afford to waste time, because by then time might be running out in Islamabad.

Should those Kashmiris who challenged India on the strength of support from Pakistan feel betrayed or relieved by this swivel? Practical sense suggests relief, because they were caught in a deathly squeeze between quarrelling elephants. The idea of an independent Kashmir was always a lemon; neither India nor Pakistan would have permitted such a state on such a sensitive geopolitical flank. Punjab and Bengal were divided in 1947; Kashmir was divided in 1949. Those facts are unlikely to alter. The fate of Kashmir may be settled, but not the fate of Kashmiris. Peace between India and Pakistan will give them de facto if not de jure unity because it will restore free movement of people and goods across the ceasefire line. That is not a small gain in a life that is finite.

The danger of ignoring this moment should be obvious. If peace cannot be found when it is waiting patiently in the drawing room, then we are creating an opportunity for some future warmonger. The continued American presence in Afghanistan, the repeated American incursions into Pak territory and the resurrection of Taliban are creating tensions that are making Pakistan's Army vulnerable to internal pressures. Instability breeds unpredictable brats.

I have long held the slightly heretical view that India and Pakistan will have to work as allies in troubled Afghanistan, but for that to happen we have to find an alignment of self-interest and identify a common enemy. A resolution of the Kashmir dispute is a first, and urgent, requirement to meet a much larger challenge.

 

 

 

 

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