Zeroing in on Kashmir
The Nation
June 29, 1997
Friday, the twentieth of June, was the first day of India-Pakistan foreign secretaries’ talks in Islamabad. Indian foreign secretary Salman Haider walked out of the meeting hall of the Punjab House located on the footsteps of Margallas. He looked happy and kept smiling during the press briefing that followed the two sessions of the day, one informal and the other formal.

The latest information reveals that, during that informal session, Haider had told his Pakistani counterpart about the mandate he had received from prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral on including the Kashmir dispute in the political agenda for bilateral talks between the two countries. Since the two sides had previously differed only on the question of Kashmir, with this official expression of Indian willingness to include Kashmir in the talks’ agenda right in the beginning of the second round of foreign secretaries’ talks, what remained was to identify the rest of the unresolved issues between the two countries, chalk out a mechanism to address them through working groups, and discuss the modalities of these working groups.

Informed officials believe that, starting from the first day’s formal session, foreign secretaries Salman and Shamshad and the members of their respective delegations spent three days of their intensive talks on discussing and debating these important matters.

In other words, unlike the past, the two sides this time were not merely wasting their time in just talking about talks; rather, what they were up to was accomplishing something concrete in their relationship or at least paving the way for the achievement of this purpose. The outcome of the talks establishes the fact that the two sides are now deeply interested in making some real progress in normalizing and improving their decades-long strained ties.

Diplomacy involves give and take, which is what these talks have accomplished: India has agreed to include Kashmir dispute in the agenda for talks, and Pakistan has agreed to discuss everything with India bilaterally, including Kashmir.

India has finally said goodbye to its recent past approach of treating Kashmir as a non-issue and Pakistan has abandoned its top-down approach of first negotiating Kashmir and only then anything else. The two sides have decided to form working groups on eight issues that were identified as “unresolved issues”. These include: peace and security, including Confidence-Building Measures; Jammu and Kashmir; Siachen; Wullar Barrage or Tolbul Navigation Project; Sir Creek; terrorism and drug trafficking; economic and commercial cooperation; and promotion of friendly exchanges in various fields.

By September, when the next round of foreign secretaries’ talks is held, they are expected to finalize the modalities of these working groups. Issues of peace and security, including CBMs, and Kashmir—as the joint statement released after the conclusion of the talks mentions—will be discussed by working groups headed by the foreign secretaries.

The working groups on Siachen and Sir Creek may be led by the defense secretaries; the working groups on Sir Creek and Wullar Barrage or Tolbul Navigation Project, by the secretaries of Water and Power; and the working group on terrorism and drug-trafficking, by interior secretaries of the two sides. On two other important matters—that is, economic and commercial cooperation, and promotion of friendly exchanges in various fields—the working groups to be formed are to include only high officials of the two countries.

Pakistan’s decision to discuss Kashmir with India bilaterally is in itself a bold move. Most of the time since the 1972 signing of the Simla agreement, which committed India and Pakistan to negotiate Kashmir bilaterally, Pakistan had been trying to internationalize the Kashmir issue. The thrust of its Kashmir policy was to secure such settlement of this issue as conformed to the spirit of UN Resolutions on Kashmir.

Pursuing bilateralism with New Delhi on Kashmir had hardly ever been on Islamabad’s agenda—until, last February, when Nawaz Sharif came to power with tremendous public backing. India might have taken a U-turn in its approach towards Kashmir by surrendering its past stand of not considering it a dispute as such. Pakistan has also surrendered something with reference to Kashmir: as long as it discusses Kashmir bilaterally with India, Islamabad will not have any justification for internationalizing it. Then, was the Pakistani side a loser in the recent negotiations? Not necessarily.

For one, the country’s year-long efforts to internationalize Kashmir have not proved fruitful. Secondly, it is a fact that negotiations, whether bilateral or multilateral, become a farce unless the negotiators discuss the core issues, like that of Kashmir. Suppose in the working group on Kashmir India still dithers on an amicable settlement of this issue, then Pakistanis will certainly have a more powerful case to prove before the international community by highlighting Indian stubbornness.

For our part, we must acknowledge the fact that the uprising in Kashmir is fast losing momentum due to various reasons. The Indians have launched counter-insurgency by sponsoring their own militant Kashmiri elements. They have held elections, and no matter how farcical this electoral process is, it is being seconded—although with some reservations—by Western nations, including the United States. In such a scenario, Pakistan’s resort to just one option, that of merely internationalizing the matter, would not have made any sense.

We must also remember that as long as the Kashmiri uprising retains some of the momentum and the Indians continue to suppress it with the use of force, Pakistan will continue to have an edge over India at the negotiating table. Kashmir, as long as it burns, will act as a bargaining chip for us—a factor which can be employed to secure Indian concessions on other unresolved issues with India in a manner that suits Pakistan’s interests.