Prime ministers of India and Pakistan were proposed to announce a 20-year freeze on the status of Kashmir
olumnist and TV presenter Javed Chaudhary recently reported a long conversation with Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa (retired). Based on that conversation, he claimed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India had been willing to visit Pakistan in April 2021. Following back channel talks, Chaudhry said, it was proposed that Prime Ministers Modi and Imran Khan would announce the establishment of friendly relations, the opening of trade and an end to interference in each other’s internal affairs. The two countries would also not sponsor terrorism. The prime ministers would also agree to and announce a ‘freeze’ on Kashmir’s status for 20 years. Chaudhary said he learnt that the then foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had derailed the initiative telling Khan that he would be accused of a sell out on Kashmir and a surrender to India. Khan, he says, retreated as a result, and the visit was postponed.
To create an enabling environment for the visit and the announcements, says Chaudhary, a ceasefire on the Line of Control was declared in February 2021. He says senior government officials in Islamabad anticipated progress in relations with India. One month after the ceasefire declaration, Gen Bajwa had stated at a conference in Islamabad that it was time for India and Pakistan to “bury the past and move forward”. The crux of his long speech was that strengthening the national economy should be the key priority and if this required putting the Kashmir issue on the back burner, that should be done.
Although the ceasefire was announced in February, early steps in that direction were taken long before that to create a favourable environment for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Pakistan. For instance, before the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (LA) elections, the military authorities had proposed that key Kashmiri leaders should publicly state that they supported the change of Gilgit-Baltistan’s status to that of a province in Pakistan. It was reported that China favoured this arrangement.
A two-thirds majority in the parliament is required to amend the constitution. Gen Bajwa and Lt Gen Faiz Hameed (retired) therefore held a consultation with Shahbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leaders of the largest opposition parties in the parliament. Both of them reportedly accorded their consent to the plan but advised Bajwa that the process should be initiated through the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly following the LA elections.
A new political map depicting the Indian-occupied territory of Jammu and Kashmir as a part of Pakistan was released on August 4, 2020. Some Kashmiri leaders then pointed out that this amounted to an imitation of the Indian move of declaring Jammu and Kashmir as Indian territory and therefore a deviation from its principled position. Their concerns were mostly ignored.
A strategy to alter the makeup of Azad Jammu and Kashmir also surfaced at the same time. A serious attempt was made to introduce a constitutional amendment in the AJK Legislative Assembly that would have eliminated the designation “Azad Government of the State of Jammu and Kashmir.” Additionally, there was a suggestion to significantly curtail AJK’s administrative and financial authority.
The Kashmiri leaders feared that a retreat had begun and that the process would not stop unless somebody challenged it. Most political parties in the AJK, diaspora activists and civil society vehemently rejected and denounced the measures aimed at the disempowerment of the autonomous government in Kashmir. The proposals have since fallen into obscurity as a result of rising countrywide political and economic unrest. However, the threat may have subsided temporarily, not permanently.
A mending of fences with India is unlikely until the political climate in both countries changes significantly.
When the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government was established in Azad Kashmir under the leadership of Sardar Abdul Qayyum Niazi, the chief secretary released a lengthy list of the government’s priorities. Among the top items on the list was passing a resolution supporting the declaration of Gilgit-Baltistan as a province and the revocation of the 13th Amendment which affirmed the fiscal and administrative autonomy of the region.
Anticipating a public backlash, Niazi warned Gen Faiz that if they passed such a resolution, the PTI would suffer a political setback from which it would never recover. He said the pro-Pakistan demographic would quickly erode on both sides of LOC and the nationalist parties’ stance would be seen vindicated.
As a compromise, the AJK assembly passed a resolution that did not mention the provincial status but announced its support the empowerment of the government of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Gen Bajwa and Gen Hameed seemed not to subscribe to the view that the constitutional role of the military was to assist the political leadership, not to claim the driving seat. Had the process of negotiating with the Indian leadership been led by the then prime minister, he could have created a favourable environment for peace. Only the political leadership of a country can take ownership of such grand endeavours.
Sadly, after the abrogation of Article 370 by the Indian parliament, the military leadership was on reconciliation trajectory with India while the political leadership took the path of confrontation. Diplomats in Islamabad used to report that Imran Khan’s attitude towards India was tough but Gen Bajwa’s flexible. The latter used to give the foreign visitors the impression that he wanted to settle matters with India but Imran Khan was an obstacle; that he had moderate views and was a peacemaker, like Pervez Musharraf, but the civilian government was getting in the way.
At home, most opposition parties chastised Imran Khan for having allegedly struck a secret deal with India over Kashmir after August 5. Pakistan’s response to Indian actions also concerned and upset most Kashmiris who saw it as inadequate. On the other hand, in Indian-held Kashmir, the authorities were not willing to make even the smallest concessions like preventing human rights violations and addressing the complaints. Given the context, Imran Khan realised that the proposal to freeze the Kashmir issue for twenty years would not be popular and that his support for it would turn him into a pariah.
The efforts discussed above failed due to the lack of institutional consensus towards India. The general election in Pakistan is around the corner. By the end of this year, Pakistan will have a freshly elected government. Next, the electoral process in India will get under way. A mending of fences with India is not likely until the political climate in both countries changes significantly.
There is a need in Pakistan to review the policymaking processes and remove the flaws due to which the political and military authorities, sometimes, pursue conflicting policies.
Freezing the status of Kashmir and Kashmiris is not a viable option. In AJK it will be seen as a sort of soft surrender. Besides, the unresolved Kashmir conflict has the potential to flare up at any time and ruin all perceived gains. Finding a peaceful, amicable resolution that benefits Kashmiris as well as all other stakeholders should therefore be the main focus.
The writer is a freelance contributor. He tweets ErshadMahmud and can be reached at: ershad.mahmudgmail.com