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Moving the discourse to ground zero

SUHASINI HAIDAR

The most lasting effects of firings along the LoC are felt by the people of Jammu and Kashmir who bear the brunt of all the tensions between India and Pakistan. Picture shows a boundary wall of a house along the border.
PTIThe most lasting effects of firings along the LoC are felt by the people of Jammu and Kashmir who bear the brunt of all the tensions between India and Pakistan. Picture shows a boundary wall of a house along the border.

With tensions along the LoC, the centre of gravity for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute has moved away from Jammu and Kashmir, both geographically and mentally

When two elephants fight, goes the oft-repeated cliché, it is the grass that gets trampled on. The recent firing along the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB) between India and Pakistan has caused the deaths of both soldiers and civilians, has set back dialogue and left the Kashmir resolution process gravely wounded. The most lasting effects of these will no doubt be felt by the people of Jammu and Kashmir who bear the brunt of all the tensions between the two countries. In more than a decade of the ceasefire holding, farmers had resumed planting crops, schools had sprung back to life, and many villages were repopulated along the LoC, outcomes that are endangered now. But what has affected the State the most is that as a result of such tensions, the centre of gravity for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute has moved away from Jammu and Srinagar, Poonch and Rajouri, both geographically and mentally.

Away from a resolution

Consider for example the crisis from August to October this year. As the firing progressed and artillery guns were deployed, the discourse moved away from the purview of local commanders. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government issued orders that the local Border Security Force (BSF) commanders must not accede to a flag meeting, and firing should persist. Orders from Pakistan were sharp too, as the Army kept the barrage going on its side. Fairly soon, New Delhi and Rawalpindi were engaging each other, and the messaging had deeper undertones. It was clear that Pakistan’s Army was testing the new Indian government, raising firing levels in the pre-winter shooting season. And the new Indian government was letting Pakistan know there is zero-tolerance in its working style. This was reflected in the India-Pakistan Foreign Secretary talks being cancelled over a meeting with Hurriyat leaders, while the firing over the LoC/IB resumed, according to a senior Defence ministry official, “in double measure.”

“In a gloomy scenario, the most positive sign was Mr. Modi’s decision to spend Diwali with flood victims in Kashmir, which is a direct reach out from New Delhi to Jammu and Srinagar”

Meanwhile, politicians were taking the discourse even further away from ground zero. Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked Pakistan at election rallies in Maharashtra and Haryana. Home Minister Rajnath Singh spoke of giving a “muh tod jawab” to the neighbour while opposition leader Rahul Gandhi demanded “more action.” In Pakistan, opposition leader Bilawal Bhutto sought to “take back every inch of Kashmir.” Interestingly, he referred to Kashmir as another province of Pakistan, one which he and the Pakistan Peoples Party would “take from India.” Clearly the speeches had nothing to do with a resolution and more to do with political gains. The floods that paralysed the Kashmir Valley had a similar effect. They only reinforced how important the roles of New Delhi and Islamabad are to shore up Srinagar and Muzaffarabad which are helpless in times of disaster.

In the aftermath of the ceasefire violations, Pakistan decided to move even further afield, with a focus on the U.N.’s role in the conflict. First, at the United Nations General Assembly, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif mentioned a plebiscite and made references to violence against Kashmiri women “in particular,” followed by Pakistan’s interventions in Kashmir at the U.N. (Decolonisation) Committee. Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz spoke to the U.N. Secretary General and wrote to the U.N. several times linking the border firing with the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Clearly, the idea is to “internationalise” the Kashmir conflict, as it had been two decades ago, before former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh charted a new course in bilateral engagements.

It was this new course, the “four-step,” that saw a slew of measures that brought relative peace to Kashmir over the past decade. The November 2003 ceasefire allowed India to complete its fencing of the LoC and stop infiltrations from Pakistan, and the demilitarisation of cities in the Valley saw the strengthening of local police and paramilitary, repopulating of border areas, and a drastic drop in complaints of human rights violations. The cross-LoC bus and opening of trade allowed the reunification of many families from both sides of the border.

Finally, what was important was that for the 10 years or so when the ideas of resolution swirled around, no one — not Pakistan’s new leadership, not India’s strategic community, not even Kashmir’s angry youth — actually rejected the four-step or suggested a return to violence. Even when protests boiled over in the summers of 2008-2010, protesters never picked up more than a stone. One reason is clearly that each of the measures listed dealt with ameliorating the lives of the people in Jammu and Kashmir. Islamabad may not have followed suit in the same way for people on its side of the LoC, but New Delhi focussed on the people of the State, and that effort seemed to pay off.

Unfortunately, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) lost that focus. Battered by corruption allegations against his government and by State election results, Dr. Singh began to take the narrative away from the Valley and his “round-table” talks. Perhaps the clearest sign that the people of Jammu and Kashmir had receded in New Delhi’s calculus was the hanging of Afzal Guru. The decision to pull him out of the government’s “numbered list” for the death row, without allowance for appeals and without notice to his family, which the UPA had done even in the case of 26/11 terrorist Ajmal Kasab, was an illogical if not an illegal act. Some even suggested it was cynical and was aimed at sending a message of “toughness” to the Congress party’s political opponents. Whatever the cause, it was certainly not aimed at assisting a Kashmir resolution, and the centre of gravity once again shifted away from the people of the State.

The real irony is that the resolution of the Kashmir dispute shouldn’t actually take anyone far from the position today. No matter how many years Pakistan tries its war of a thousand cuts, or Indian Parliament passes resolutions on owning “all of Kashmir,” what is on the ground will remain. The LoC with its fences, outposts, and crossing points, is for all practical purposes a border, and only an unconscionable amount of bloodletting could change even a millimetre of it. When Kashmiris travel from one side of the LoC to the other, they show as identification passports of India and Pakistan, something both countries have acceded to. The so-called “third option” — that of an independent Kashmir — is a red herring, as it was never offered by the British in 1947, nor would any referendum in the State include it as a possibility.

Proposing another fence

It is now important for both countries to put a stop to the slide they have made away from a resolution. The greatest tragedy in the years 2003-2008 when they were making progress was that no attempt was made by either Gen. Musharraf or Dr. Singh to educate people on what had been planned. It is also worth consolidating on the gains of the ceasefire line and propose another fence a few kilometres behind the present one, on the lines of a demilitarised zone. The eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation that India and Pakistan have is outdated in the age of sensors and drone technology, only leading to the loss of lives and a blame game.

In this gloomy scenario, the most positive sign has been Mr. Modi’s decision to spend Diwali with flood victims in Kashmir. The move, coming on the heels of two previous visits to the State, is the one signal of a direct reach out from New Delhi to Jammu and Kashmir. Sooner or later, the two governments will also have to revert to talks that would discuss terrorism and the resolution of Kashmir — the essence of the India-Pakistan dispute. If the desired outcome is only a peaceful version of the present situation on our common borders, the earlier we begin to reverse-engineer the resolution that is holding back both countries, the better.

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