Perceptions and reality by Touqir Hussain

Published in Dawn newspaper on August 25'th, 2003

In India-Pakistan relations, perceptions and reality often dance together but at times they drift apart, like it seems to be happening now. Both sides now perceive prospects of peace and are trying to tie them to reality. But for that to happen they will have to recognize the reality, and try to change it.

The reality on the Indian side is that it has been pursuing a multi-pronged strategy on Pakistan in recent years specially under Vajpayee - diplomatically, to vilify us abroad with accusations of terrorism and religious militancy , and build an international coalition against us; and militarily, come down heavily on the Kashmiri resistance, and hold out a credible threat of direct use of force against us. The broader aim has been to step up international pressure on us, wear us down, erode our leverage in Kashmir, and chip away at our negotiating strength.

India may now be willing to talk to us not because the Americans have told it so; it may suit it also. Indeed India's coercive diplomacy may have run its course. And there are strategic, economic and diplomatic dividends to normalization of relations with Pakistan. American "pressure" therefore is not something that India may resist or resent. It may even welcome it as long as both sides know the limits to American involvement that has so far been well circumscribed by Indian sensitivities and degree of tolerance. As India needs, and has been getting, the western support to its broader position on Kashmir, it has to from time to time ease up the pressure on Pakistan as a sweetener for keeping the West on board.

If India is ready to talk to Pakistan it is not to decide the future of Kashmir in our favour but to see first of all if it can play us out of the equation so as to facilitate an internal solution. In return it may be willing to offer us only good neighbourly relations including of course tension-free borders, in other words concessions outside the ambit of Kashmir. So much so that even the resumption of a dialogue is being made to look like a concession.

The diplomatic game plan that Vajpayee seems to have is to start off the talks by holding out hope to Pakistan that if it plays ball with India in the short run, by reining in the Jihadis and by bilateralizing the issue and agreeing to normalizing people-to-people contacts and trade and economic relations, and also join in some other confidence building measures, it could be "rewarded"with a slow motion dialogue on Kashmir promising at some point in future some unspecified "solution" of the dispute. No roadmap, nothing. Will Pakistan accept this?

No, and nor will India accept our eternal and unchanging stand on Kashmir. So the actual realities, which the two sides have severely internalized, need to be revised to bring them in line with their impressionistic reality of peace.

We know that it is a big political and military challenge for Pakistan to retrieve its leverage on Kashmir without crossing the red light that India has now clearly set up with last year's massive show of strength on the borders. It is also a diplomatic challenge, specially how to bring our relations with the United States to bear on the Kashmir situation where it too may be facing a diminished leverage because of the war on terrorism. On Kashmir, arguably, in the present situation the US may have come to acquire more leverage with Pakistan, already benefiting from US economic and security assistance and needing more.

We therefore really need to re-assess the situation before we lose our relevance to the Kashmir solution and before the international environment once again becomes unfavourable to us. For that we need to re-think our old patterns of thought. President Musharraf is a bold and pragmatic man and I am confident he and the broad military leadership would recognize the necessity for a change. The civilian dispensation also seems to be open to conviction. So the time to break new ground may never have been more opportune.

It is true Kashmir involves some obvious security and defence interests of ours. And above all it represents a moral commitment. But is this the sum total of our aggregate national interests and obligations? Pakistan's overall national interests go well beyond Kashmir. Kashmir perhaps does not even fill up our overall interests with India. And as for our interests with India, what about the fate of 140 million Muslims? Should we not be worrying about them, and also should we not worry first about Kashmiris and what is in their best interests rather than about Kashmir.

I think we have to go to the next talks with India with a fresh approach if we want to make anything of them. More of the same will only stall things and suit India. First of all we have to ask ourselves what is it that we want in Kashmir - victory or a solution. Victory is not possible, but solution might be. Should we not therefore, without compromising on principles, move Kashmir from the top of our national concerns and priorities where it is casting a long and heavy shadow on our broader national interests.

Here is what I think Pakistan can do. The Kashmir dispute should be embodied in our overall relations with India rather than it obscuring or absorbing these relations indistinguishably. These relations, of course, should continue to occupy a central place in our foreign policy. We should then try to develop a linkage where progress in one area in the relations with India could be linked to progress in others. Kashmir should obviously get a greater weightage. Composite dialogue is fine but it is a form not the substance of talks. If the two sides do not show genuine flexibility on Kashmir, the whole exercise will come to a stumbling halt, once again. We need movement across the board.

Here language is important. Instead of continuing to denominate Kashmir as the "core" issue or highlighting its "centrality", expressions that are resistant to flexibility, we could perhaps stress its "primacy". This may change our mindset without causing a major paradigm shift. So we can risk that change. We should nonetheless continue to give strong and unrelenting moral and diplomatic support to the cause in international forums.

If India also makes a similar policy adjustment we may possibly get some respite from its hostility raising the potential for peace and stability that could allure international business community - tempted by the prospects of an integrated market in the region- to make serious efforts at bringing foreign investment. I do not know about other countries, but in Japan the business community used to tell me unequivocally that they would not bring any major investment as long as the potential for war and instability in the region remained.

All this may never materialize because of India's failure to reciprocate, but we would have denied it at least one plausible excuse for confrontation. How will we know if we do not give it a try? This confrontation suits India as it provides justification for militarization. Its response in Kashmir has indeed merged with its broader strategy for the fulfilment of hegemonic and big power ambitions.

It is time to change the tack. Our diplomatic efforts have no doubt helped internationalize Kashmir, but at the same time they have helped India in taking full measure of the ineffectual international support for Kashmir. This revelation has further encouraged its intransigence. And even the exposure of the Kashmir issue itself has been mixed; if our story has received media attention so has India's vicious propaganda against us. So we may have lost as much as we gained through the media as well as diplomatic exposure of the issue in the last 12 or 13 years. And I say that with much anguish as I have seen Pakistan straining under unbearable propaganda pressure internationally in this period and as a diplomat have often wondered if there was not a better way to fight for the Kashmir cause.

A weak Pakistan will not serve the cause of Kashmir well, a strong Pakistan can. A weakened Pakistan also will always consign us to dependence on big powers and obstruct the pursuit of an autonomous foreign policy. Let us build a strong Pakistan first.

The writer is a former ambassador.