While in Washington on a state visit in September 2000, Atal Behari Vajpayee had the audience enthralled while speaking at a reception hosted by the Indian-American community. Obliquely referring to American pressure for restarting the dialogue with Pakistan after it lay frozen in the icy heights of Kargil, Vajpayee said, “We are continuously told to talk to Pakistan. Even here I was told that India should show its neighbours that democracy is about dialogue. Ok, I say, let’s talk, but what will we say to Pakistan? Will we say, ‘How is the weather?’ or will we say, 'How are your wife and children?'”
Vajpayee had felt personally betrayed after his Lahore bus journey had reached Kargil, as he liked to put it then. He, however, put his sense of betrayal behind him and invited General Pervez Musharraf, the architect of Kargil, for a high-level summit in Agra in 2001.
Fifteen years later, the India-Pakistan relationship lies frozen once again, this time because the Narendra Modi government is loathe to make the Hurriyat Conference the veritable ‘third party’ to a dispute that India wants to contain within the bilateral framework.
Why are we so afraid of a ‘third party’? Is it because we have only looked at Kashmir as a prized property, as the crown that adorns our head on geographical maps? Is it because we have only looked at J&K as a military problem, seldom seeking to address it politically?
As a keen watcher of the Kashmir problem – since the AK 47s first surfaced in the cold winter month of December amongst chants of Azadi! – I’d make the case that a third party makes maximum logical strategic sense.
It is in India's interest to engage Nawaz Sharif as well as third parties for several reasons. First, Pakistan reiterates its demand for third party mediation on Kashmir (it did just before Sartaj Aziz was to travel to India for the NSA dialogue ), and thus would be hard-pressed to reject this approach. Speak to senior Pakistani diplomats and bureaucrats and they will concede privately that were such a process to start, the outcome would evolve towards the view that the Line of Control be made the international border.
India has everything to gain and Pakistan more to lose in the event of third party involvement. President Bill Clinton virtually endorsed the LoC as an international border when, he said in Islamabad in March 2000, soon after the short but sharp war in Kargil that, “History will not reward those who try to forcefully redraw borders with blood.”
Bilateral talks with Pakistan are unlikely to transform the LoC into an international border. Talks with Pakistan and a third party are likely to be more effective in clarifying the unreality of Pakistan's stated goals for Kashmir. It would not be difficult for Indian government officials to defend third party involvement politically. Indeed, it would be easier to generate public support for third party involvement than for a resumption of bilateral dialogue that failed within days of an agreement in Ufa between Modi and Sharif.
Contemporary history shows that America does not hesitate to bring itself into the South Asia picture when it perceives that to be necessary. It was evident during the Kargil war when Clinton summoned Sharif to Washington and asked him to withdraw his troops from the snow-clad heights.
Post-Kargil and in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks in which American citizens were killed, India should feel more confident about Washington being a prospective third party. As one state department official pointed out, “we have not in many years now spoken of self determination or the United Nations resolutions. India should appreciate that.” India needs no reminder to the direction in which the US tilts when it comes to the issue of state-sponsored terror. Not after Osama bin Laden was snuffed out of hiding in Pakistan’s Abbottabad from under the military establishment’s nose.
There are of course, various forms of mediation. A smaller country could host such an effort as Oslo did for the Middle East peace process. Special envoys — trusted people appointed by the Indian and Pakistani governments respectively — could meet in Norway, a safe distance away from the pressure of politics and hawks. Given the difficult nature of the Kashmir dispute, any likely settlement would need to be underwritten by the United States for it to stand the test of time. This is possible only if India addresses the unrest in Kashmir and takes positive steps to deal with the large-scale Kashmiri sense of alienation.
Some important questions remain: Would the ISI and the Pakistani Army give up their “bleed India” policy even if a facilitator manages to help negotiate the conversion of the LoC into an international border?
Well, the chances of their doing so are greater if a third party raises the costs of non-compliance and if India establishes its willingness for a settlement that restores greater powers to the state and addresses the issue of Kashmiri alienation. By doing so, India would also strengthen its international position in the event of subsequent Pakistani non-compliance.
Then, may be, as Vajpayee said, we could truly ask, “How is the weather?”
(The author also wrote a similar report on third party mediation for Washington-based think tank Henry Stimson Centre in 2000)