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- Monday, September 17, 2012 - From Print Edition

Amid all the official and media hype over the recent visit of the Indian foreign minister, a very pertinent question was raised last week by veteran Kashmiri leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Reacting to Hina Rabbani Khar’s hoopla about “forgetting history,” he asked: “How can the historic background of the Kashmir issue and the sacrifices made by the people for the right to self-determination be forgotten?”

Geelani warned that the focus in the bilateral dialogue on visa policy and on trade would help India consolidate the status quo in Kashmir, and he called upon the people of Pakistani to clarify whether the present government’s India policy was national policy or that of a single party. Other Kashmiri leaders, among them JKLF chairman Yasin Malik, have also voiced misgivings over the sidelining of the Kashmir issue.

In her press conference with Krishna, Khar said that the aspirations of the Kashmiri people should be respected. But she made no reference to the right of self-determination. Instead, her emphasis was on areas of “convergence” between Pakistan and India and on break-from-the-past policies. Pakistan, she declared, had changed the position it had held for 40 years on trade with India. That had sent a very strong message that Pakistan was willing to forge ahead “without being held hostage to the past.” She also repeated her pet phrase about the government looking at India with a “different mindset,” in effect crediting Zardari with the “discovery” that the Kashmir policy followed by all previous governments, from the Quaid-e-Azam onwards, was misguided.

The major tangible outcome of Krishna’s visit was the easing of travel restrictions between the two countries for the first time since 1974. Compared to the unilateral concession made by Pakistan on trade-significantly without any steps by the Indian side to dismantle its non-tariff barriers on imports from Pakistan-the liberalised visa regime agreed by the two sides is a relatively small step. Some commentators, mostly from India, have argued that its political significance is greater than the practical effect in terms of increased tourist traffic across the border. One leading Indian newspaper opines that it could impart momentum to the confidence-building process and lead to the resolution of some of the political issues. This view has been embraced not only by our government but also some opposition parties, notably the PML-N, whose leader continues to view Pakistan-India relations mainly through the prism of what he naively considers to have been the failed promise of his summit with Vajpayee in 1999. However, the Pakistani press has generally taken a less rosy view and called for addressing the political problems without further procrastination.

After getting Pakistan to give ground on the questions of trade and “people-to-people” contacts, Delhi has now set its sights on even more ambitious goals – two, in particular, in the short term. First, India would like to revive the dialogue on Musharraf’s four-point proposal for a “resolution” of the Kashmir issue. Second, India would like Pakistan to open the land route for India’s trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Krishna emphatically signalled India’s keenness to resume the backchannel dialogue on Kashmir in an interview with The Express Tribune. The discussions on Kashmir held between 2004 and 2008, he said, were “the most fruitful and productive discussions ever” between the two countries on the issue. What that means in plain language is that no previous government in Pakistan had come so close to granting legitimacy to India’s occupation of Kashmir. Not surprisingly, therefore, Krishna expressed Delhi’s wish to “carry those discussions forward and build on them.”

As regards the substance of these negotiations, Krishna said they were “based on the common understanding that while boundaries could not be redrawn, we could work towards making them irrelevant by enabling people on both sides of the LoC to move freely and trade with each other.” What he did not say in the interview-for obvious reasons-is that Musharraf’s proposal would also have signed away the right of the Kashmiris to self-determination, nullified the UN Security Council resolutions on the issue, made the LoC a permanent border and legitimised Kashmir’s illegal occupation by India in perpetuity.

The second issue-that of transit rights through Pakistan-came up in Zardari’s meeting last month with Manmohan Singh in Tehran on the sidelines of the NAM Summit. Zardari said that Pakistan wanted to be a catalyst for regional economic cooperation in South Asia and Central Asia. But we do not know what his response was on the question of granting transit rights to India.

In the quest for a transit route through Pakistan, India is being powerfully backed by Washington, which would like to see India expand its influence in Central Asia and considers the opening of the Pakistan route as a key to this goal. This plan, packaged as the New Silk Road project, is an integral part of Washington’s policy of “making India a global power,” which was first proclaimed to the world by the Bush administration in 2005, and of his successor’s design announced in 2011 of building up the South Asian giant as the “lynchpin” in the new US strategy for South and Central Asia. The aim, clearly, is to contain the influence of China. It is noteworthy that, in welcoming the outcome of Krishna’s visit to Pakistan, the spokesman of the State Department noted with satisfaction that the progress made by Pakistan and India on visa and economic issues was “very much in line with the New Silk Road vision.”

If Pakistan cooperates in the fulfilment of these designs, it could be “rewarded” with an accord on Sir Creek. This was signalled by Manmohan Singh himself on his return journey from the Tehran summit. He said that an agreement on this question was “doable” and that at Tehran he had proposed to Zardari that the two sides should “push that process further.” Manmohan also indicated that an agreement on Sir Creek would “facilitate a purposeful visit” by him to Pakistan. Yet there is no indication so far of Indian flexibility to bridge the gap between the positions of the two countries on the demarcation of the Sir Creek boundary.

Siachen, of course, does not belong to the “doable” category in the Indian view. Those who regard it as a “low-hanging fruit” ready to be plucked need finally to wake up.

Despite his weak domestic position, Manmohan is evidently interested in visiting Pakistan if he can extract some more concessions from Pakistan as a price for this “favour.” Given Zardari’s inordinate keenness to play the gracious host, which he thinks will boost his standing domestically and with the Americans, the Indian government is quite hopeful that he will oblige. The difference of approach between Pakistani and Indian leaders is striking. Zardari wants the visit to take place to consolidate his position domestically and to win favour in Washington. Manmohan wants it to get something for his country.

The Indian demand for the conviction of those accused of involvement in the Bombay carnage is a problem, but not an insuperable one. The time of Manmohan’s visit is dependent on the political calendar in the two countries: parliamentary elections in Pakistan due by May next year and state election in Gujarat, expected to be held in mid-December, which is very important for India’s domestic politics. Manmohan is therefore said to be looking at a date after the Gujarat election, most likely in January, for a possible visit to Pakistan.

The next few months could define the future of Pakistan-India relations for a long time to come. It is unfortunate that we have a leadership which is bent on forgetting the long history of these relations, rather than learning lessons from it. As a matter of fact, we do not even know if they are quite conversant with that history.

The writer is a former member of the Foreign Service. Email: asifezdi @yahoo.com