Now is the time for a deal on Kashmir
Associate since 1991
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May 26, 2009
LONDON - With the election behind it, it shouldn't be back to square one for India in its quest to settle the bitterly divisive issue of Kashmir, one that has led to three wars and once brought the two countries to the brink of nuclear war.
India missed its great opportunity to settle the burning dispute while the military president, Pervez Musharraf, who ruled Pakistan until his overthrow last year, was in power.
According to diplomats I talked to eighteen months ago, both British and American, in New Delhi and Islamabad, a deal was tantalisingly close. One British ambassador told me that the main barrier to a deal was 'psychological' and that India had to make very few concessions to make a final deal.
If Musharraf wasn't prepared to give away the store, the Pakistani compromises came close to it. But India, despite the seemingly friendly diplomacy of the Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the unwarlike prime minister, Manmohan Singh and, in the background, another unwarlike figure, the chairwoman of the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, couldn't bring itself to go the extra mile.
Observers had different explanations for Indian intransigence - that Musharraff was trying to force the pace; that the Indian army, the intelligence services and senior bureaucrats in the foreign ministry were resisting an accord; that the leadership had not made an effort to educate the electorate as Pakistan's had done; that the prime minister was weak and over preoccupied with the economy; that his (successful )attempt to lower the grinding poverty in the rural areas was also a preoccupation; that the time consuming nuclear deal with the U.S was critically important; and that India rather liked the status quo, since stubbornness fitted in with its self-image of being the sub continent's super power.
There was also the failure of the Bush Administration that was, in Singh words, 'loved' by India for pushing a deal through Congress that lifts the long standing embargo on selling nuclear materials and reactors to India. America could have used the muscle that the nuclear deal gave it to help push India to sign on to Musharraf's magnanimous offer.
Prime Minister Singh unexpectedly finds himself riding high. Not only did Congress win hands down, but the grumbling that Singh was a weak prime minister has disappeared. Singh might still say, as he said to me eighteen months ago, "How can you expect me to push a peace deal when militants are coming from Pakistan every few months to set off bombs in India." Needless to say, the big bombing in Bombay towards the end of last year reinforced his argument.
But when I repeated this in my interview with Musharraf, he responded sharply. "I don't agree with his way of looking at it. If everyone in the world looked for calm and peace before reaching a solution, we would never achieve peace anywhere. It is the political deal itself that can produce calm. Bomb blasts are a result of the problem. Let's not put the cart before the horse."
Musharraf had his own reasons for compromising - and so does his successor, the democratically elected President Asif Ali Zardari. The conflict has led to guerrillas fighting for a free Kashmir (which Pakistan's intelligence service has long secretly supported, although much less these days). In turn, these militants have given aid, men and advice to the Taliban in Afghanistan. For their part, the Taliban have perhaps given succour, or at least provided an example, to other militants that tried to kill Musharraf and that on the eve of the election murdered the president's wife, Benazir Bhutto.
Can India go on stalling, tie down the Pakistani army on its joint borders and watch Pakistan perhaps tear itself apart?
The official Indian stance is to claim the whole of Kashmir, including that part long occupied by Pakistan. But in the earlier negotiations India did concede in principal the notion of 'soft borders' - that has already allowed limited bus travel across the 'line of control' that divides the two halves. India has hinted at consideration of the abolition of this 'line of control', and at the same time accepting the division of Kashmir, the withdrawal of Indian soldiers and separate autonomy for the two parts of Kashmir. Some have called this the 'Irish solution'.
India has not been prepared to close such a sensible deal, although Musharraf's offer is still on the table and would mean forsaking Pakistan's dream of uniting its part of Kashmir with Pakistan proper.
Prime Minister Singh must now step forward and make the historic compromise.
Copyright © 2009 Jonathan
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