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Passage to Pakistan

Let?s recognise that now is a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring India and Pakistan to the threshold of a possible agreement on Kashmir, writes Omar Abdullah.

india Updated: Mar 20, 2006 13:38 IST

On March 9, I boarded a PIA flight to Lahore on my way to Islamabad. It was with no small amount of trepidation that I took my seat in the back of the plane. Everything seemed to scream out that my feelings were justified, I seemed to have received a far more thorough body search by the Pakistani Sky Marshall/Intelligence chap at the door of the plane who seemed to enjoy my discomfort, I was two rows from the back of the plane and the airhostesses seemed downright indifferent. If I were to have taken these as signs of what to expect in Pakistan I’d have quickly exited the plane before things could get much worse and I’d have been completely wrong about Pakistan and its people.

I understand when those of us who travel from here gush about how warm and hospitable the Pakistani’s are and I can understand them reading this and wondering why I’ve made such a big deal about nothing but you have to understand my personal history with that country. My family has never been the most popular set of people in Pakistan, my grandfather preferred a secular India as opposed to an Islamic Pakistan, my father has his own axe to grind with them especially for the number of colleagues he has seen gunned down over the last sixteen years and my statements as a minister in Prime Minister Vajpayee’s government wouldn’t have won me a popularity contest.

It seemed that the Pakistan government was willing to put all that behind and so in the spirit of new beginnings I silently prayed for a quiet visit as the doors closed.

My visit was anything but quiet and for all the right reasons. From the moment I stepped out of the terminal in Islamabad till I walked out of the Serena Hotel three days later, it was a constant series of meetings, receptions and interviews.

The highlight of my trip was without a doubt my meeting with President Pervez Musharaff. I had been lead to understand that a one-on-one meeting was a distinct possibility but was not willing to take anything for granted.

When the meeting finally took place I was impressed with the General’s approach and pragmatism. He outlined a solution that involved self-governance, de-militarisation and some form of joint management. I’m not going to go in to the details of the solution he outlined because I believe that’s for the government of Pakistan to do. What I will say is I believe we have a golden opportunity to bury, once and for all, an issue that has plagued relations between our two countries since 1947.

One of the standard responses I get to hear when I mention this is whether I feel we can trust him.

There is no doubt that the General has a bit of a history with us that is difficult to overlook. Agra, Kargil, the tension following the attack on our Parliament are all valid arguments but I believe it’s important to look beyond the past. I’m not for a moment suggesting we forget the past; I’m suggesting we put it aside for a while and focus on what he’s saying.

He’s suggesting finding a solution that addresses India’s concerns regarding sovereignty and territory. He talks about making the Line of Control irrelevant and most importantly he talks about a solution that lies beyond the UNSC resolutions of the 1950s. To put this last point in to some perspective — I believe this is the Indian equivalent of Dr Manmohan Singh saying that J&K need not be an integral part of India in the search for a solution.

Nothing of what the General is suggesting is popular back in Pakistan. He is seen as having given up much more to India even before the dialogue on Kashmir has moved very far forward. The less favourably the Indian establishment reacts to his suggestions, the more public pressure will grow on him in Pakistan to step back and adopt a more hard-line stance.

Dr Manmohan Singh enjoys a very high degree of personal credibility in Pakistan. People there, and I mean the man in the street, the waiter in the hotel, the driver of our mini bus, the sound man in the TV studio, all believe that he is a sincere man committed to moving ahead but held back by a strong presence in the establishment of status quo-ists who believe the problem will just go away on its own without the need for any concessions either to the people of J&K or to Pakistan.

All I can do is appeal to the Government to recognise this is a once in a lifetime opportunity where events in the world have conspired to bring India and Pakistan to the threshold of a possible agreement on Kashmir. What I believe we need to do is simply live up to our stated commitment of being willing to consider out of the box solutions.

Other than my meetings with the President and my attendance of the Pugwash Conference, I had a string of meetings with senior leaders from the other side of Kashmir including their Prime Minister and leaders of the Muslim Conference. Everywhere the refrain was the same: let’s grab the occasion and make history. I was inundated with invitations to Mirpur and Muzaffarabad and what surprised me was the genuine warmth that accompanied the invitations. It was unfortunate that I wasn’t able to accept them on this trip but look forward to returning soon, perhaps on the bus from Srinagar.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. I had a particular nasty run in with a local journalist there who felt I had lost my right to call myself a Muslim because I refused to accept that what is happening in Kashmir as a jihad and all this in front of the Foreign Minister of Pakistan.

However, no damage done, I live to fight another day. All in all I believe it was a very good visit, symbolic of the new beginnings that I believe we have to make in our quest to find a new solution to an age-old problem.

The writer is president of the National Conference and a Lok Sabha MP.

First Published: Mar 19, 2006 00:45 IST