November issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 20 years ago

Though President Musharraf’s latest proposal to resolve the thorny Kashmir dispute, may have struck a politically dramatic note, it came as no surprise. Over the last few months he has repeatedly indicated his willingness to show flexibility on the issue to keep the dialogue process with India moving.

Musharraf has now outlined a step by step approach towards resolving the decades old dispute that envisions making some parts of the disputed territory independent, or placing them under joint Indian-Pakistani control. Indeed, the suggestion to identify the region, demilitarise it and change its status signifies a radical shift in Pakistan’s Kashmir policy. ” We have come to a stage where options acceptable to Pakistan, India and Kashmiris can be explored,” he said. But can it provide a viable basis for ending the 57-year-old row that has made the region a potential nuclear flashpoint? Is there light at the end of the tunnel, as Musharraf hopes? Most observers believe there’s still a long way to go before the two countries will agree to a negotiated settlement on the Kashmir dispute.

Musharraf’s proposal indicates a welcome step-back from Pakistan’s traditional hard-line position of holding a plebiscite under the 1948 UN resolution that required Kashmiris alone to decide to go either with Pakistan or India. India occupies two-thirds of the Muslim dominated region, while the rest is under Pakistan’s control. For the first time, a Pakistani leader has suggested making the territory a joint protectorate. “It is a significant come-down from Pakistan’s original position,” says Talat Masood, a retired general and leading defense analyst.

For the past 57 years the Kashmir cause has been almost the raison d’etre for Pakistan’s existence — not to mention the politically dominant role of the armed forces. Pakistan has fought two wars with India over Kashmir and came close to fighting a third just a few years ago. Musharraf said a “change of status” for Kashmir must be discussed, with other options to include joint control with India or placing sections of the region under a United Nations mandate. ” If both sides continue to stick to their stands, the dispute would persist for a 100 years without any solution,” said Musharraf.

Meanwhile, the Indian government’s response to Musharraf’s proposal has been guarded. While recognising the flexibility in Pakistan’s position, Indian officials have raised serious questions over the viability of the proposals. India, in the past, had indicated its willingness to accept the Line of Control as the international border and reconciliation and reorganisation of the state within the India Union, but had firmly refused to accept any territorial changes. Nonetheless, there appears to be some indication of a growing realisation in the Indian establishment that their traditional position may not provide a solution to the Kashmir problem. There is, however, little sign that New Delhi will agree to Musharraf’s new proposal.

Musharraf has categorically rejected the idea of making the LoC a permanent border. Instead he identified seven geographical regions — five under Indian control and two in Pakistan’s — suggesting a solution could be discussed along these borders. He also emphasised that demilitarising the region was an important first step. The latest Pakistani move came following Musharraf’s ground-breaking meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York.

The two leaders made political history when they agreed that possible options for a peaceful negotiated settlement of the Kashmir issue should be explored. Most analysts describe the absence of the usual rhetoric on Kashmir and the affirmation on both sides to a fresh start on the dispute by exploring “all possible options,” as a significant departure from the past. “By agreeing to explore all possible options for a settlement of the Kashmir dispute, the two leaders have energised the dialogue process,” said Rifaat Hussain, a leading defence and security analyst. ” It is a major development reflecting flexibility on both sides.”

kashmir-2-nov04The breakthrough came after several rounds of secret back-channel diplomacy prior to the summit meeting. President Musharraf’s top aide, Tariq Aziz, met the national security advisor to the Indian Prime Minister, J.N. Dixit, several times which helped bridge the gap between the two countries on negotiations on the thorny Kashmir issue. Aziz, who is secretary general of the National Security Council, was also involved in covert talks in the past that paved the way for the landmark meeting between President Musharraf and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Islamabad in January this year.

Musharraf’s new found flexibility indicates a realisation that militancy can no longer be used to force India to give up its claim on the Himalayan state. For almost 15 years Pakistan used militancy as a policy instrument to fight a proxy war in Kashmir. Using its experience in training and controlling mujahideen during the Afghan resistance war against the Soviet occupation, Islamabad, in the late 1980s, started providing arms and training to Islamic militants fighting against the Indian forces in Kashmir. Thousands of Pakistanis trained by the ISI joined the Kashmiri jihad. India deployed more than half a million troops to crush the Kashmiri separatist struggle that left more than 80,000 people dead.

Though Kashmiris comprised the majority of the guerrillas, Pakistani-based radical Islamic militant groups, like Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-i- Mohammed, emerged as major forces in the Kashmiri separatist struggle. Since the mid-1990s more than 50 militant groups have been active in Kashmir. The rise of these extremist groups also had a blowback effect on Pakistan resulting in growing Islamic militancy and sectarian violence within the country.

Islamabad’s policy shift is also driven by external factors. The post-September 11 international environment has further complicated both India and Pakistan’s positions and policies towards Kashmir. By joining the US war on terrorism, Pakistan once again took centre-stage in the international limelight, much as it had after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But the new environment provided both opportunity and crisis for the military-led government. Under US pressure, Musharraf was forced to abandon support for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The use of militancy as an instrument of policy was no longer acceptable under any pretext. Musharraf banned several militant groups and tried to curb cross-border infiltration following a military stand-off with India in 2002. He also restructured the ISI which had been responsible for the covert war in Kashmir. These measures, however, did not bring the militancy in Kashmir to a halt. Many banned organisations resurfaced under new banners and continued their activities.

The government finally woke up to the serious threat these groups posed to Pakistan’s own internal security when their activists were found involved in terrorist attacks and in the failed assassination attempts on Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz. This forced the government to take increasingly stern action against the militant groups and close down their training camps. It was in Pakistan’s own national security interest to try and break the Kashmiri logjam.

kashmir-2-nov04 (1)The military’s willingness to consider options other than plebiscite is evident in the current ongoing internal debate. A senior army officer, in an article published in a recent National Defence College journal, suggested a combination of partition and plebiscite. Under such an arrangement, he argued, Kashmir and the Northern Areas, presently under Pakistani control, would become part of Pakistan. Some districts of Leh, Jammu, Udhumpur and Kathan in Indian-administered Kashmir, would become part of India. The Valley, Kargil, Doda, Poonch and Rajori districts would be placed under UN trusteeship for five years and then subjected to a plebiscite with options to either join Pakistan or India.

Last year the Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir, Sardar Sikandar Hayat, called for the division of Kashmir along the Chenab river which flows down from Kashmir to Punjab, separating the Muslim majority areas from Hindu and Buddhist-dominated districts. The Chenab formula proposes the reconstitution of the LoC along the riverbed, with Muslim areas on the right side of the river being absorbed into Pakistan and the Hindu and Buddhist majority regions into India. He argued the Chenab formula provided for a natural partition of Kashmir on religious lines. He contended that such a division would be an honourable and amicable solution to the longstanding dispute. Most analysts agree that the idea was floated at the behest of the military to test public opinion and gauge its response to Pakistan’s new policy shift.

Musharraf’s latest proposal appears to be based on various recommendations from scholars and non-official groups providing possible solutions to the Kashmir conflict. While traditional approaches failed to break the deadlock, these groups made a number of efforts to sketch out what radically different solutions might achieve. One such suggestion comes from the Livingstone Report by the Kashmir Study Group in consultation with a number of non-official Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri participants. The report makes a number of recommendations involving territorial changes aimed at rationalising the LoC and then attempts to describe a hypothetical Kashmiri state or states. The actual territorial configuration of the state or the states would be determined by a series of referendums to accommodate specific regional aspirations and take into consideration Indian and Pakistani security concerns.

The report proposed that the hypothetical state or states would not be independent and sovereign, but would have full control over all matters except foreign policy and defence, which would remain under Indian and Pakistani control. The Livingstone Report contained comprehensive lists of acts that would fall under the jurisdiction of the new polity and specified that both countries would be required to withdraw from the area and treat it as a demilitarised zone. Like Owen Dixon’s early UN report, the Livingstone Report recognised the difficulties of treating Indian-and Pakistani-administered regions as single entities. While not excluding the possibility of a merger, it also considered the existence of two territories with the LoC as a “soft border” between them. There are several other ideas floated by other groups and scholars. Sir Owen Dixon’s proposal of a district-based plebiscite mechanism is also seen by Pakistani officials as a possible base for discussion.

Predictably, Musharraf’s pragmatism has evoked mixed public reaction. While liberals have supported his new approach, the hard-line Islamic parties have accused him of betraying the Kashmiri freedom struggle. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), immediately rejected Musharraf’s proposals: “It’s a U-turn, a roll-back on Pakistan’s policy on Kashmir since independence,” says Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, vice-president MMA. “This is a one-man show; Musharraf wants to rule the country according to his will and ideas.” Jaish-i-Mohammad, an outlawed militant group that has fought Indian rule in Kashmir, said it would not deviate from its policy of ending Indian rule through violence.

It is quite evident that Musharraf, who has reneged on his commitment to step down as army chief, has the support of his generals on this policy shift. The latest restructuring of the army’s top command, following the retirement of some hard-line generals, has substantially strengthened his position. The exit of those officers with hawkish views on India has placed the military leader in a better position to accelerate the peace process. “Musharraf’s shift on the Kashmir policy indicates a degree of confidence in his own ability to take tough decisions,” said a political analyst. ” He has put his neck on the line.”

A negotiated settlement of the complicated Kashmir problem will, however, be a tough task. ” The real challenge will come when the two countries enter into negotiations on the options,” said Rifaat Hussain. ” One should not be over-optimistic about any major breakthrough on a solution to the Kashmir dispute.”

The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.