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Mainstream, VOL LV No 30 New Delhi July 15, 2017

Scanning a Landmark

Sunday 16 July 2017, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

Important events are graduated into landmarks in History as they are invested with hindsight. Perhaps it would be premature to call an event a landmark on the very morrow of its happening. By this criterion, the meeting of the Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan at Islamabad on June 19-23, 1997 has a significance which needs to be taken into account.

For years at a stretch, there was no formal meeting at the official level to decide on the agenda for a business-like discussion of problems bedevilling the relations of the two countries. Although a number of brief summit-level encounters between the heads of government of both Pakistan and India have taken place in the last few years, there have been no serious appraisal of the problems until last week’s meetings at Islamabad with a short session at Murree. The importance of this round of meetings has been that all the issues that have cropped up between the two countries ranging from trade and economic cooperation to Siachen and Kashmir have been noted down as part of the agenda of official level meetings which would start in September. For fixing a regular agenda, the Islamabad meeting of the two Foreign Secretaries has been extremely important.

In fact, it can be safely stated that since the Shimla talks in July 1972, there has been no such serious talks between India and Pakistan for the last 25 years. There are of course many differences between the Shimla and Islamabad talks. For one thing, the Shimla talks were held at the summit-level, and therefore had the authority to take decisions binding on both the countries. The Islamabad talks were at the official level—that is between the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries—and therefore they were in the nature of fixing the agenda by the officials of the two countries and to that measure, it marks an improvement over the vague generalities about amity and goodwill that political leaders are accustomed to use as part of their protocol formalities. The agenda that has been set by the joint statement at the Foreign Secretaries level is not only detailed: the problems that beset the two countries on which fixed positions have been publicly taken by the two sides, but about which a lot of ground has to be covered. In a sense it is a very bold document but at the same time signifies the seriousness with which both the governments have undertaken to go in for a settlement of the major issues that have become the bone of contention between not only the two governments but even stirred up acrimony betwen the public of the two countries.

The most serious of these challenges has been the question of Kashmir. On the side of Pakistan, the argument raised boiled down to the point that for seven long years, there has been armed militancy particularly in the Valley which the Indian security forces have not been able to put down. Besides, this phenomenon has attracted wide international attention not merely on the score of human rights violation but as part of the urge for self-determination. The Indian argument, that the militants who have been active mainly in the Kashmir Valley were trained and armed by Pakistani outfits, could carry little weight since it became more and more known that the Indian authorities have been unable to run normal administration in the Valley. Although this argument was particularly confronted by the fact that even under security protection a full-fledged State Assembly election could take place and an elected government has now been installed in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, the fact that the urge for autonomy is still very strong in Kashmir—in fact on both sides of the military line of control—a situation which can hardly be wished away.

The orthodox Indian opinion has long held that the State of Jammu and Kashmir having had acceded to the Union of India as early as 1947, there could be no reason why New Delhi should permit Kashmir to become the subject of discussion with other States, particularly with Pakistan. This standpoint was held at times by the Government of India, as also by the more orthodox political standpoint represented by the BJP, among others. In fact, a section of those who generally support the Congress have sometimes taken the same view. It was therefore a Herculean task on the part of the present Gujral Government to have agreed to the Pakistani demand for the inclusion of Kashmir as part of the agenda of an Indo-Pak talk. No doubt, it was Prime Minister Gujral’s personal initiative which has enabled Foreign Secretary Salman Haider to include Kashmir in the future official-level Indo-Pak talks. For, it is known that in the list of priorities for Prime Minister Gujral’s foreign-policy, the improvement of Indo-Pak relations comes at the very top of the agenda, and as a realist, he has understood that there has to be an understanding between India and Pakistan over the issue of Kashmir.

The argument which has often been trotted out in the hard-core Indian circles has been that Pakistan has no business to be invited or consulted with regard to any decision on Kashmir that New Delhi may arrive at with Srinagar. But if one looks back at the record of the last five decades, it needs to be emphasised that New Delhi has never kept Pakistan out of any discussion on Kashmir. This could be seen from the fact that in 1948, when India took the Kashmir issue to the UN, it was not as a complaint against aggression by the armed tribals coming over from Pakistan, but for a settlement of the dispute between India and Pakistan. In 1964, when Sheikh Abdullah was released after a harassing trial spread over years, he was invited to the Prime Minister’s House in Delhi as the guest of Jawaharlal Nehru and from there he set out with his known views for bringing about a confederation of India, Pakistan and Kashmir. Whether such a confederation was feasible is a different question, but there is no doubt that in Nehru’s view there could be no final solution of the Kashmir issue without involving Pakistan into it. Again at Shimla in 1972, Indira Gandhi met Zulfikar Ali Bhutto mainly to discuss the sequel of the independence of Bangladesh, but the issue of Kashmir came into the parley and found its place in the accord that was signed there.

In recent times, the issue of Kashmir figured prominently in Pakistan politics and in the last general election, Benazir Bhutto took a hectoring posture over it. In contrast, Nawaz Sharif, who won the poll with an overwhelming majority, only expressed his hope to come to an amicable understanding between India and Pakistan. It is known that the present government of Nawaz Sharif generally reflects the viewpoint of the corporate sector in Pakistan which is keen on better economic relations on the part of the present Pakistan establishment for enduring Indo-Pak relationship.

The military establishment in Pakistan is known to be largely dominated by the line of the Pentagon, and it is quite possible that the present Clinton Administration might like to play host to a Camp David model of settlement between India and Pakistan. It is on this point the two sovereign countries of South Asia have to display their strength, wisdom and sense of independence, to work out their own agenda for a settlement of outstanding issues. If the Kashmir issue has to be settled in the ambience of amity and understanding, the settlement has to come by understanding between India and Pakistan alone.

One has also to take into account the temper of the common humanity in the two countries. After five decades of acrimony, there are distinct signs about the turn of the tide, and that is precisely what is reflected in the clear drafting of the agenda as embodied in the Islamabad accord between the Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan. It is the hope of millions in this country as also in Pakistan that this round of highest official level deliberations will pave the way for laying the foundations of a structure of durable peace. It is symbolic that these talks, holding out hopes of amicable understanding, should take place exactly twentyfive years after Shimla and in the middle of celebrations of fifty years of independence in the two countries.

(Mainstream, June 25, 1997)

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62