By Shahid Javed Burki
I have seen some reports in the American press detailing how India and Pakistan, working through back channels, were close to an agreement on solving the long-enduring Kashmir problem.
It appears that the two countries were about to reach an understanding on creating a new legal and political entity covering the entire state of Kashmir, the parts being currently administered by both Pakistan and India. The state would have been given a fair degree of autonomy and would have been governed by a body with membership drawn from both India and Pakistan. A sort of Kashmir Commission would have been created to manage the state.
The Line of Control, the current border between the Indian-occupied Kashmir and the Pakistani-held Kashmir, would have been turned into a soft border, open to unconstrained trade. The movement of people across this quasi-border would have been free. People’s movement beyond the established borders of the two countries would have been regulated according to the laws of the two states. Although the press reports did not indicate what kind of passports and citizenship the Kashmiri people would have carried, I presume that a separate national identity would have been created.
This near-agreement collapsed after President Pervez Musharraf was forced to leave office. The terrorist attacks on Mumbai last November dealt another blow to the developing understanding. It is presumably lying on a shelf in diplomatic cold storage in New Delhi. Will it ever see the light of day?
The current political turmoil in Pakistan has contributed if not to the demise of the agreement then at least to a considerable delay in its possible adoption. Pakistan today is politically and economically a much weaker state than it was in the early 2000s. It was then that much of the backchannel negotiations were conducted. Especially when long-enduring disputes are being looked at for finding possible solutions, progress can not take place when one side has been considerably weakened compared to the other. This has happened to Pakistan.
A government that does not have a sense of a security cannot negotiate when the workable agreement involves moving back from the positions that have been taken for a long time. The solution of the Kashmir problem of the type revealed by the American press would have resulted in Pakistan giving up its long-standing claim to the entire state of Kashmir. Not only that, it would have also agreed to Azad Kashmir to be governed by a joint commission. Only a strong and secure administration could sell this change in posture to the population which continues to be emotionally involved in the Kashmir issue.
India, too, has been weakened by the Mumbai attacks. The government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has come under heavy criticism for not being able to defend its borders. That a small group of men could penetrate the defence perimeters of such a well-protected city as Mumbai was seen a sign of weakness, particularly on the part of a country that claims superpower status.
That it took so long for the members of the special forces to reach the scene of carnage did not provide comfort to a population that was being fed the slogan of ‘incredible India’. Weak governments don’t settle old and difficult disputes. This does not augur well for the settlement of the Kashmir problem anytime soon. That said, it gives some hope that at least at the official level the contours of a possible settlement have begun to take shape.
A couple of years ago I was commissioned to do a study on Kashmir by the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace. The study was published by the USIP and became the subject of a conference hosted by Pugwash in Colombo in 2007. The conference was well attended by non-government representatives from both India and Pakistan as well as by some functionaries from the US think-tank industry.
The conclusions I had reached in the study were similar to those that formed the basis of the informal dialogue between the governments of India and Pakistan. I had suggested that open trade and free movement of the people of Kashmir could be the basis of an agreement since both sides had paid a heavy economic cost keeping the issue on the front burner for so long. This was the case especially for Pakistan.
Using a simple economic model I estimated the economic costs for Pakistan of the continuing dispute, arguing that the country’s economy would have been a couple of times larger had so much not been invested in the Kashmir dispute. It was an economist’s way of arguing that letting Kashmir go unresolved was a tenable proposition for the people of Pakistan.
The costs incurred came not only in the form of large military expenditures that a country at Pakistan’s stage of development could not afford. They also resulted from smaller flow of foreign capital, the closure of large Indian markets for Pakistan’s exports, and periodic troop mobilisations that were costly. Pakistan also allowed Kashmir to become a cause célèbre for Islamic extremism.
Once equilibrium has been restored to Pakistani politics and once general elections in India have produced a new government in New Delhi, the two countries may be able to revisit the problem of Kashmir, continuing the dialogue where they left it when Pervez Musharraf departed from the political scene. A nudge may be needed by both capitals to get back to the table, formally or informally, and begin to lay the ground for moving forward.
The nudge may come from Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama’s special representative to the region. Although India was able to exclude Kashmir from the Holbrooke mission at New Delhi’s insistence, this may not prevent the emissary from informally pressing the two governments to move ahead towards resolving the dispute. If further evidence is needed about the way various conflicts around Pakistan are destabilising the country, it was provided by the terrorist attacks on Lahore on March 3.
The Americans must be concerned that unless progress is made in removing the causes that motivate the jihadi groups, this part of Asia will not be stabilised. Wise leadership on both sides of the border should recognise that persistence on Kashmir and the reluctance to move away from established positions comes with very high costs.