Kashmir and India-Pakistan re-engagement

We should use our diplomatic capital to try and alleviate Kashmiris’ suffering without compromising our time-honoured position

First came the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35-A of the Indian constitution through a dubious amendment described by some scholars of jurisprudence as a constitutional heist. The Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir lost its special status on the basis of which some Kashmiris had agreed to remain under Indian sovereignty.

The proclamation of Jammu and Kashmir as a Union territory was accompanied by the induction of hundreds of thousands of additional troops in the Valley to enforce a lockdown unprecedented in its scope and severity. The outraged human rights community has denounced these actions in unambiguous terms.

The Commissioner of Human Rights, the principal officer of the United Nations system entrusted with the promotion and protection of human rights, has issued two scathing reports on the situation in the Valley. As expected, reactions from governments, including those which are traditionally on the forefront of human rights advocacy, were muted.

Considerations of national interest derived from India’s growing economic importance and strategic relevance clearly accounted for this silence which was but sporadically punctured by a few mild and innocuous statements. Reactions inside India ranged between grudging endorsement and resounding support.

Dissenting voices were muffled and scattered. In the parliament, the amendments had sailed through with a consensus. Even the diehard proponents of secularism and constitutional propriety had gone along. The horror story in Kashmir continues to this day largely unnoticed and un-mourned by the world.

On February 25, South Asia woke up to an unexpected and, in the context of the harsh bitterness that had characterised relations between the two countries since Modi’s ascension to power, a radical development. The directors general of military operations for India and Pakistan issued a joint declaration committing their militaries to reestablishing the ceasefire agreement of 2003 and pledging to address each other’s ‘core issues and concerns’ in the interest of achieving mutually beneficial and sustainable peace along the borders.

The ceasefire, whose merit was deemed questionable in some quarters, was in fact suggestive of the dawn of rationality on both sides. Conflict for its own sake without any dividends, immediate or anticipated, is not supported by any military doctrine. Daily exchanges of fire, including heavy artillery were causing unnecessary waste of men and material without accruing any tangible gain, tactical or strategic to either side.

One would be hard pressed to find a similar example anywhere else in the world where two adversaries routinely target each other’s posts without a clear cut military or political objective. The Indian claim that violations were initiated by us in order to facilitate the movement of militants across the LoC is as spurious as it is self-serving primarily because limited inductions would have had no impact whatsoever on the situation in the Valley.

Such activity on our part would also have invited negative international attention which we just cannot afford with the FATF sword hanging over our head. By all counts, restoration of the ceasefire agreement represents a display of maturity by the two sides as both stand to benefit from it in concrete terms. Despite Indian military’s tall claims of its ability to successfully wage a two-front war the hammering it received in Laddakh must have opened its eyes to the hallucinatory character of its strategy.

For Pakistan, the stakes were even higher. With its economy in severe distress compounded by serious issues of governance combined with the very real apprehensions of instability on its western border following the impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a ceasefire was both desirable and necessary. It is now incumbent on the two sides to ensure that the guns remain silent across the LoC and the Working Boundary.

The fact that the ceasefire agreement was not an isolated event divorced from the overall context of Indo-Pakistan relations has been reinforced by recent developments. Several reports from various quarters suggest that representatives from the two countries have been conducting clandestine interlocutions in various locations around the world. This needs to be welcomed and encouraged.

History tells us that major diplomatic breakthroughs were made possible in conditions of strict confidence and away from the glare of the media. Henry Kissinger’s landmark visit to China, Paris negotiations between him and his Vietnamese counterpart, the Oslo Accords, back channel diplomacy on Kashmir during the Musharraf era, the nuclear deal with Iran, come readily to mind.

Confidentiality is integral to forward movement on complex diplomatic issues. As a citizen one wonders what these backchannel interactions are intended to achieve. These could possibly include preservation and consolidation of the ceasefire, amelioration of the plight of the Kashmiris, Siachin and Sir Creek, cooperation for promoting stability and durable peace in Afghanistan without prejudice to the legitimate interests of either side, particularly Pakistan’s given our special concerns arising from the reality of a long shared border, mutually beneficial confidence building measures, mitigation of the devastating effects of climate change on South Asian economies, overall regional cooperation, amongst others.

A formidable agenda indeed, but progress in one or more of these areas would have a stabilising effect on a perennially volatile region while expediting our transition from a geo-strategic to a geo-economic matrix. During these conversations, however, we need to be mindful of one fundamental point. Following our listless response to the seminal events of August 5, 2019, when the Kashmiris needed us most, we are no longer in a position to appropriate to ourselves the right to negotiate and decide on their behalf.

We should scrupulously avoid giving any undertakings to the Indians on the future of Kashmir as that right today belongs exclusively to the Kashmiris. They have earned it through their heroic struggle against unbelievable odds and the sheer magnitude of their sacrifice. Let them now decide their destiny, through whatever means available to them, unencumbered by our disabilities both internal and external.

Ours should be a supporting role. In a more just world this should not have been the denouement of a 73-year old saga during which we stood shoulder to shoulder with our Kashmiri brethren, even during the most trying and testing times. The iron grip of circumstance, occasioned in large part by our own fragilities with which we can barely cope, has largely reduced our role to that of a sympathetic bystander. The least we can do is to use our diplomatic capital to try to alleviate their suffering without compromising our time-honoured position that lasting peace will continue to elude this troubled region till the Kashmir dispute is resolved in consonance with the aspirations of the Kashmiri people.

The writer is former ambassador and a former member of the

Federal Public Service    Commission

Kashmir and India-Pakistan re-engagement