Readers of the Economist — and I am normally an avid admirer — could be forgiven this past week for feeling transported back in time by a decade or more, after a first look at the magazine’s cover. The headline strap describes the Line of Control (LoC), which effectively separates India and Pakistan, today as the “world’s most dangerous border.” More than the rhetorical and unnecessary map row triggered by how the boundary lines of Jammu and Kashmir have been depicted on the cover, I was surprised by some of the anachronistic arguments made in the article.
The narrative is reminiscent of one scripted in a pre-9/11 age. In March 2000, when President Bill Clinton described the subcontinent as the most-dangerous place in the world and dubbed Kashmir as a potential “nuclear flashpoint” between India and Pakistan, the two countries used to regularly wrestle over what the “core issue” was.
But given that a ceasefire has pretty much held (minus some minor aberrations) both along the International border and the LoC since 2003, and in a month where Osama bin Laden, David Headley and the attacks on a military base in Karachi have dominated global headlines — is Kashmir really the central point today?
The Economist argues that the road to reducing the threat of terror must travel through a constructed peace zone between India and Pakistan. And this, its editorial says, can only be achieved if America leans on India to “show restraint in and flexibility on Kashmir.” By externalising many of Pakistan’s internal contradictions, the Economist appears to have missed the changing signs in the equation over the past decade, especially when it comes to Kashmir.
It is no one’s case that India does not have a serious and complex problem to address and resolve in Jammu and Kashmir. As a long time observer of the state, one has repeatedly warned against being lulled into complacent indifference every time there is a season of relative calm in the Valley.
Justice for extra-constitutional killings, a greater political autonomy, gradual demilitarisation and a process of truth and reconciliation among different communities remain promises still owed to the state. The sharp dip in militant violence makes it even more of a moral imperative for New Delhi to engage honestly with issues of genuine alienation.
But there have been also been significant changes that many people forget to mark on the map of Kashmir’s tumultuous journey in search of peace. Two assembly elections that have been widely accepted as free and fair and most recently, a panchayat election that saw a staggeringly high participation are signposts that need to be read and understood as well. Admittedly, electoral participation in Kashmir is not quite a de-facto referendum. But equally, people have contested and voted in these elections defying both the shadow of the gun and boycott calls. These are facts that have to be added up in our computation of the evolving ground situation.
And the Economist mentions, but does not give adequate weightage to the biggest change of all. In the past few years, when terrorism did not overshadow the relationship between India and Pakistan, New Delhi and Islamabad had broadly agreed to the contours of a Kashmir settlement. Pakistan’s own former foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri has spoken extensively about how the principal players on both sides including the present Pakistan army chief had agreed to the formula. The Indian government has never officially confirmed or denied Kasuri’s proclamations and the diplomatic silence is indicative of how close to the bone his revelations are. The truth is that if the 26/11 attacks had not disrupted everything; there may well have been a Kashmir resolution on the table.
On a recent trip to Pakistan, right after Osama bin Laden’s killing, I didn’t find Kashmir, or frankly, even India, to be much on the minds of the people I met. Yes, some bombastic TV debates on why India couldn’t conduct a copy-cat Operation Geronimo had certainly not helped matters and had definitely strengthened the hardliners on the other side. But largely, Pakistani citizens spoke about whether the Abbottabad debacle would provide an opportunity for the civilian government to appropriate real power for itself and when that didn’t happen, they lamented what they believed to be another lost opportunity.
This week — one that saw both the outrageous attack on PNS Mehran in Karachi and the chilling deposition of David Coleman Headley in Chicago — juxtaposes the twin realities of Pakistan today.
Its paradox is that Pakistan is bleeding and suffering tragically at the hands of terrorists (like the Pakistani Taliban) but sections of its establishment continue to believe that others terrorist groups (like the Lashkar-e Taiba) will secure it strategic advantage. A former Inter-Services Intelligence chief, Lieutenant General Asad Durrani, was blunt when he wrote recently that sometimes terrorism too “is a technique of war, and therefore an instrument of policy”. But a policy that what was once all about achieving “strategic depth” may well have become Pakistan’s path to self destruction.
That India must continue to engage with Pakistan is unquestionable. In these dangerous times, the moderate voices in Pakistan cannot afford to be marginalised any further. A continuing dialogue between Delhi and Islamabad gives them some breathing space and room for self-assertion. Also, distasteful gloating at terror attacks in Pakistan only feeds into the paranoia of fundamentalists on the other side of the border and helps construct the mythology of India as enemy No.1 Indian officials have long believed that there are “many Pakistans”. And we must weigh in on the side that is fighting the extremists.
But the hard truth is that Pakistan’s problem today is not India. And no, the Kashmir conflict is not central either.
Pakistan’s war is within.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal