Keep back channels in full flow

  • Gull Wani
  • Publish Date: Feb 10 2016 4:09PM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Feb 15 2016 3:43PM
Keep back channels in full flow

He international community has expressed satisfaction over the resumption of the dialogue process by India and Pakistan. The joint statement issued after the National Security Advisors meeting in Bangkok is brief but beautiful. The discussions covered “peace, terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir and tranquility along the Line of Control”. The NSA talks were followed by a meeting between the two foreign ministers during the “Heart of Asia’’ conference in Islamabad.
This is indeed good news: in the midst of scepticism, both India and Pakistan are well aware of their responsibilities towards carrying the peace process forward. The Pakistani prime minister has directed his ministers not to issue anti-India statements to wreck the peace momentum. The fact is that despite all the hostile posturing, some “peace activity” was always going on – the Indian foreign secretary’s trip for the SAARC meeting, Sari diplomacy, the 90-second chat between Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharief in Paris, the Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad, and now Modi’s shock stopover in Lahore on the way back from Kabul.
This flurry of diplomacy has revived hope of movement on the vexed Kashmir dispute. Indeed, in recent Track II and other behind-the-scenes meetings, the key question being discussed was this: how can the Kashmir issue be factored into the Indo-Pak dialogue process talks with the seriousness it deserves? The need for New Delhi and Islamabad to start a constructive engagement with Kashmiris has become particularly urgent because for first time radicalisation rather than militancy has emerged as a serious threat. Fortunately though, Kashmiri identity, rooted as it is in a syncretic tradition, is tremendously resilient to all ideologically-loaded challenges.

Proceed fast, but with caution
India and Pakistan need to demonstrate political will to drive the dialogue process forward, but they must proceed with caution. The relations between the two countries are accident-prone and the history of the dispute suggests that regular, constructive engagement is good even if it may not yield instant outcomes. The objective should be to remove public cynicism and not to make talks vulnerable to heightened expectations. Both sides must realise that diplomacy has always been central to resuming the dialogue. When, in the wake of the Kargil conflict and the parliament attack, there was heavy military mobilisation along the borders and all out war loomed, the crisis was defused through diplomatic means, duly appreciated by the international community. No wonder the people of India and Pakistan, and particularly the people of J&K, heaved a sigh of relief after the latest resumption of the dialogue process.
Regional forums can play an important role in sustaining the dialogue process. At a recent event organised by the Institute of Kashmir Studies, Kashmir University, to celebrate the SAARC Charter Day, academics and experts expressed disgust over growing public cynicism of SAARC as a forum held hostage to Indo-Pak tension while other parts of the world are reaping dividends of regional cooperation. It should be an eye-opener for the strategic elites in India and Pakistan that the ASEAN economic community is now a reality which is estimated to lift aggregate economic output by 7 per cent by 2025 and create 14 million new jobs. This despite the fact that ASEAN, unlike the European Union, is politically diverse. Its members range from the communist-ruled Vietnam and quasi military-ruled Myanmar to the increasingly Islamist-leaning kingdom of Brunei and the democratic Philippines. This economic community is a rebuff to the hawks and cynics who have been arguing that a largely undemocratic Pakistani state won’t find traction with a democratic Indian order, as is Modi’s belief, expressed during an event on board the INS Vikramaditya on 15 December 2015, that talks with Pakistan would turn the course of history.
It’s no secret that we live in a very difficult neighbourhood, one riven with uncertain political transitions, weak institutions and internal conflicts. But we can’t just wish it away. The region’s uncertainty would remain the backdrop of Indo-Pak engagement. But the two countries must learn, from their immediate past, to rescue the dialogue process from any disruption. Speaking in the parliament after her Pakistan visit, Sushma Swaraj stressed the need to activate the anti-terror institutional mechanism set up by the Parvez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh in September 2006 after a meeting in Havana, Cuba. For the dialogue to be durable, both sides should focus on such small steps and seek to change the optics of the process. Solving less contentious issue like Sir Creek can inject new political energy in bilateral relations.
As far Kashmir, while a political dialogue to resolve the dispute is critical, it is equally essential to focus on “humane governance”. The experience of Sri Lanka’s Tamil conflict has shown us the limitations of “garrison governance” – outsourcing civilian jobs to the armed forces. It simply doesn’t work; in fact, it often ends up worsening the problem.
There is a need for opening the channels of communication with different shades of political opinion in J&K so as to prepare for a more constructive dialogue in future. The political actors in Kashmir need to do some soul searching and find a common path. The leaders of the mainstream political opinion have, by and large, settled their political paths vis-a-vis the settlement of the Kashmir issue. The separatist leaders need to be more forthright, though that might require the managers of Indian and Pakistani states to level the ground for a more useful engagement with them.

Keep the issue on Track II
While the formal Indo-Pak dialogue process was suspended, many Track II conferences were held at different levels in 2015 which helped tone down the hostility between India and Pakistan.
In late October, the Delhi-based Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation organised a three-day cross-LoC conference in Srinagar where about 50 people representing all five regions of the erstwhile J&K state deliberated upon different themes. On the core theme of the resolution of the Kashmir dispute, it was recommended that:
All stakeholders should restart processes towards resolving the Kashmir dispute.
India and Pakistan should immediately resume the dialogue on all issues, including Kashmir. This dialogue should be uninterrupted and insulated from the ups and downs in the relationship between the two countries related to non-Kashmir issues.
The two countries should have a series of structured conversations with Kashmiris within and outside the legislative process.
The ultimate solution should recognise the unique history of the erstwhile J&K and the final solution must be honourable, implementable and politically-acceptable to the stakeholders.
The ‘6th India Pakistan Dialogue’ organised by the Jinnah Institute and the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation recommended that:
The Indo-Pak dialogue must be restarted with utmost urgency and cover all relevant issues, including Jammu and Kashmir.
The existing Kashmir-centric confidence building measures should be strengthened and expanded.
Cultural, economic and academic interaction between communities on both sides of LoC should be made possible.
The 17th Chaophraya Dialogue in Thailand suggested, among other things, that the elected leaders from both parts of Kashmir should meet annually to expand and promote trade and people-to-people interaction, and implement the agreed upon CBMs and build goodwill.
All these meetings were attended by influential diplomats, academics and opinion leaders from India, Pakistan and both parts of J&K. These initiatives helped build a favourable opinion for the resumption of the dialogue process between the two countries.
If evidence was required of the importance of Track II engagement, the recently released book of Khurshid Kasuri, Neither A Hawk Nor A Dove: An Insider’s Account of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy, provides it in abundance. The former Pakistani foreign minister describes how, during the 2003-07 period, it had helped India and Pakistan develop “sufficient understanding” on Kashmir.
While it may be early to ask for the Delhi-Srinagar track to be activated, strong voices have been advocating the inclusion of stakeholders from J&K so that sustainable peace is possible. On the Kashmir track, however, a few things need to be clarified so that the state managers can refresh their memories and pick up the threads.
First, the visits of Hurriyat leaders to Pakistan between 2003 and 2007 yielded tangible benefits. Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti were also welcomed in Pakistan which widened the political space for consultations. Abdullah even gave his party’s autonomy proposal to Musharraf, who reportedly found it akin to his self-rule formulation. At the same time, separatist leaders Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Shabir Shah, Yasin Malik and Sajad Lone engaged with the top political leadership in India.
Second, J&K’s collective political leadership has always been supportive of the dialogue process as it has yielded peace dividends. In any case, in the new political and economic order, state governments in India have been playing a key role in promoting cross-border trade and resolving disputes over water or boundaries. Though, admittedly, they have sometimes done the opposite. For instance, Mamata Banerjee and J Jayalalithaa, chief ministers of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu respectively, have on occasion made India’s relations with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka difficult.
This surely has not been the case with J&K. As soon as the Indo-Pak dialogue process was resumed, the entire spectrum of Kashmir’s leadership came out in support. In fact, even civil society groups and opinion leaders have stressed upon the two countries the importance of normalising ties.

Build on solid foundations
Political sages believe there is nothing more difficult to do nor more doubtful of success than initiating a new order of things. In the case of Kashmir, and Indo-Pak relations more generally, this is certainly the case. Here, positive peace is inextricably linked with dignity and development of the people, ensuring which is no mean task. The challenge, and opportunity if they so see it, for India and Pakistan after this latest resumption of the dialogue process is to safeguard the remarkable distance they have already spanned. In order to promote a win-win solution that is acceptable to all stakeholders, including the people of J&K, the settlement must include elements that were already addressed in back-channel discussions during the 2003-07 period. They can, however, be revisited more openly now, perhaps with discussions in the parliaments of the two countries.
As Kasuri put it in his book, “We do not have to reinvent the wheel and negotiations must start from where we left off. I do not mind that a new government would like to put its own nameplate on it. In fact, there may be advantages in this, since the new government would thereby acquire the ownership of the proposals worked out so diligently during our tenure.”
To make such a settlement possible, it’s crucial to prepare public opinion in both India and Pakistan, and Modi and Sharif posses the grit it would take to do that. As for the collective political leadership of J&K, it has its own share of responsibility. Abba Eban, the former Israeli foreign minister, used to say that while political leaders can barely afford to ignore public opinion, a statesman who keeps his ear permanently to the ground would have neither the elegance of posture nor the flexibility of movement. Political prudence is not in avoiding the danger, but calculating the risk and acting decisively. That is what it would take to resolve the Kashmir dispute.

| The author is professor of Political Science at Kashmir University Srinagar