Kashmiri spring?

In a dramatic turnaround in India’s stance on direct talks with Pakistan, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on 23 May invited Pakistan’s General Musharraf to visit India at his earliest convenience. The Indian government simultaneously called off its six-month unilateral cease-fire in Kashmir. The mountainous region has been a major bone of contention — and source of direct conflict — between India and Pakistan since both countries attained independence in 1947.

Announcing the end of the cease-fire, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh said that security forces in Kashmir “shall take such action against terrorists as they judge best.” He expressed regret that various organisations had failed to recognise the imperatives of peace, dialogue and cooperation.

In statesman-like language that betrayed no trace of rancour about “cross-border terrorism,” Vajpayee spoke warmly of his February 1999 visit to Lahore and said, “We have to pick up the threads again.” Striking a gracious tone, he invited Begum Musharraf to accompany her husband. Vajpayee’s letter mentioned his visit to Minar-e-Pakistan — the monument built in honour of the Muslim League’s 1940 resolution calling, in effect, for the partition of India — and recalled the entry he made in the visitors’ book: “A stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s interest, that remains our conviction.”

Responding promptly, Pakistan expressed satisfaction at the tone and tenor of Vajpayee’s letter on Saturday. Musharraf, who met senior officials and advisers soon after the letter was delivered, ordered them to consult hard-line religious and Jihad groups opposed to talks. A Pakistan Information Ministry spokesman said that a reply would be delivered to India in two or three days. Though the venue and timing of the meeting have not been made officially public, early indications are that both leaders are keen to meet before their common Independence Day. Musharraf will be especially keen to address domestic constituencies by celebrating a breakthrough in his Kashmir offensive. Pakistani High Commissioner in New Delhi Ashraf Jehangir Qazi declared that the summit would be given “highest priority.”

Until now, there seemed to be insurmountable obstacles to such a breakthrough, including the oft-quoted Indian objection to Pakistan’s sponsorship of cross-border terrorism. Official India loved to hate Gen. Musharraf because he ousted its good friend Nawaz Sharif in an overnight coup and, even worse, plotted the Kargil invasion. Vajpayee once expressed India’s outrage to the British Commonwealth by saying that the only Pakistani leader his government recognised was Sharif. However, as in politics, so in diplomacy: What is right is self-interest. This requires India and Pakistan to bury the hatchet and resume dialogue, as border tensions translate into costly defence spending for both countries.

India indicated that the Composite Dialogue Process (CDP), agreed upon by Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Sharif in September 1998, offered a ready-made framework which could be revived if the proposed summit leads to a suitably promising climate. Other than Kashmir, the CDP included issues like peace and security, terrorism and drugs and economic and cultural cooperation.

Kashmir is of strategic importance to both countries. Major General Akbar Khan, who played a key role in the Pakistan invasion of 1947-48, once commented: “One glance at the map was enough to show that Pakistan’s military security would be seriously jeopardised if Indian troops came to be stationed along Kashmir’s border. […] We would be permanently exposed to a threat of such magnitude that our independence would never be a reality.” Similarly, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in a 25 October 1947 letter to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee wrote: “Kashmir’s northern frontiers, as you are aware, are in common with these of three countries: Afghanistan, the USSR and China. The security of Kashmir is vital to the security of India, especially since part of the southern boundary of Kashmir and India is common. Helping Kashmir, therefore, is an obligation of national interest to India.”

India has consistently maintained that Kashmir became an integral part of India when Kashmiri ruler Maharaja Hari Singh signed the instrument of accession to India. According to Pakistan, Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim state, should have automatically joined it, as religion was the basis of partition. Pakistan accuses India of not holding a plebiscite in Kashmir to ascertain the people’s wish as per the commitment it made to the United Nations.

Less than 24 hours after New Delhi handed over the formal invitation, Pakistani High Commissioner Qazi forcefully reiterated the demand for a plebiscite. India, however, says it never accepted the two-nation solution and that, even after partition, it opted for a secular, rather than a Hindu, state. India asserts that a plebiscite can be held only when Pakistan withdraws from the part of Kashmir which it occupies. India also argues that successive elections in Kashmir have conclusively proved that the people of Kashmir want to stay in India.

Senior diplomats on both sides are worried about the outcome of the summit. Hawks in India point out that Musharraf harbours intense prejudices against India and that he did not participate in the welcoming ceremony for Vajpayee in February 1999. Musharraf is also the first Pakistani ruler to proclaim that it is the duty of all Muslims to support the Jihad in Kashmir.

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