Indo-Pak Dialogue and the Kashmir Issue

New Delhi and Islamabad may be holding diametrically opposite and conflicting views on Kashmir. However, after seeing their slumbering pace and perfunctory attempts to resolve this long outstanding issue, it seems that they both share the common belief that this is not a matter of great urgency. So, on those rare occasions when the Kashmir issue does manage to come up for discussion, both sides conveniently consign it to the backburner by unanimously agreeing that this problem would be resolved once a ‘conducive environment’ had been created by reducing the ‘trust deficit’ that exists between the two countries. While there is no doubt that this argument does have great merit, it does raise the obvious question- if both India and Pakistan are indeed so anxious to shed their ‘baggage of the past’, then why have they failed to get over their mutual distrust and animosity even after more than six and a half decades and if this be so, then how can one expect that this would ever happen- now or even at a later date?

The latest round of Indo-Pak engagement started off on a promising note with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif accepting the invite for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. What raised more hope was the fact that both of them not only took bold steps, but also acted with admirable maturity. While Sharif took the risk of annoying the military by publically expressing his desire to attend this swearing-in ceremony without even having consulted with his all-powerful army chief, Modi despite his proclaimed non- conciliatory approach on terrorism, put his credibility at stake by maintaining a stoic silence on the suicide attack on the Indian consulate in Herat just prior to his assuming office, even though there was clinching evidence of Pakistan army’s involvement in this incident. Thus, while Modi wisely decided not embarrass Sharif by trying to nail Islamabad for this attack, Sharif too displayed good diplomatic sense by taking care not to upset the apple cart by giving audience to the Hurriyat during his New Delhi sojourn. Though the latter may have pained the separatist leaders, it was a politically correct step for mending fences and thus needs to be appreciated. 

When India’s External Affairs Minister Ms Sushma Swaraj told reporters that during his meeting with Sharif after taking charge as Prime Minister of India, Modi had clearly told his counterpart that “bomb blasts should stop so that we can talk and our voices can be heard,” Sharif showed diplomatic sagacity by not responding to this direct accusation that Pakistan was fomenting terrorism in India. Similarly, when instances of firing on the Indo-Pak border increased in July, Modi too showed considerable restraint despite being accused of inaction and provoked by the vitriolic barbs from opposition parties like "Pakistan is repeatedly violating ceasefire, but the government is not reacting and is sitting silent with its eyes closed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said they will give an answer, but why are they silent now?” and “The government at the Centre spoke a lot on this issue (ceasefire violations by Pakistan army) when they were in Opposition and now they aren`t reacting to the issue.” Thus, both Sharif and Modi did show mature statesmanship initially and the two seemed determined to see that the Foreign Secretary meet between the two countries took place as planned.

Unfortunately, all this bonhomie aimed at bringing the two countries closer came to naught when New Delhi unilaterally called off the Foreign Secretary level talks after Islamabad refused to call off the meeting of its High Commissioner with Hurriyat leaders and since then, Indo- Pak relations have hit a new low. And with this, both the countries have once again been encumbered with the ‘baggage of past’ which they publically vowed to shed. Now with New Delhi reiterating that no Indo-Pak dialogue is possible unless Islamabad stops talking with the separatists and Islamabad making it clear that it considers those whom New Delhi refers to as “separatists” as ‘the representatives of an occupied people’, who were fighting for their right to self-determination, the Kashmir issue has once again fallen victim to competing egos. And it is here that one starts doubting the sincerity of Pakistan’s claims regarding its consummate commitment towards early resolution of the Kashmir imbroglio. 

Islamabad has long held that New Delhi has always been dragging its feet when it came to taking action on resolving the Kashmir issue. In fact, one of the objectives of the recently held “Million March’ in London on October 26 was to “sensitise the world community to the inordinate delay in peaceful settlement of the Kashmir conflict following the traditional stubborn and hostile attitude of India.” Making excuses to avoid dialogue on the ‘K’ issue may well be part of New Delhi’s carefully planned Kashmir strategy. However, even after knowing this when a responsible person like Tariq Fatemi, special assistant to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs says that, "The talks were about to restart due to efforts of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif but India scuttled them- now it is its (India) responsibility to take an initiative for their start. We are not going to contact India for resumption of talks," what does one infer? Why is Islamabad falling into New Delhi’s trap by showing similar intransigence? 

Reacting to Indian Defence Minister Arun Jaitley’s statement that Islamabad must decide whether it wishes to talk with the separatists or New Delhi, Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokeswoman Ms Tasnim Aslam asserted that "We do not accept any conditionality. Kashmiris are not Indian separatists; they are people in occupied territory struggling for their right to self-determination that has been recognised by the United Nations resolutions. Pakistan is a party to the dispute. So this contention is not acceptable." In her statement, Ms Aslam has made three important observations- first, that Islamabad would not accept any “conditional talks’, second- that it does not share New Delhi’s view that Kashmiris demanding their ‘right to self determination’ are ‘separatists’ and third, that Pakistan is party to the UN recognised Kashmir issue. Since these observations have far reaching consequences, they merit some deliberation.

Islamabad is well within its right to reject any offer of conditional talks. However, it needs to remember that what is at stake is the future of the people of Kashmir and so, any obduracy in entering into dialogue with New Delhi is going to hurt Kashmiris the most. Islamabad is also entitled to its own opinion whether those demanding their ‘right to self determination’ are ‘separatists’ or ‘freedom fighters’. There is also no dispute that Islamabad is a party to the Kashmir issue, but this claim comes with a foot note- Pakistan becomes a party to the Kashmir issue, not because it has a legal claim over Kashmir, but solely because just like India, it too has illegally occupied of portions of Kashmir! Therefore, if Islamabad is really serious about the early resolution of the Kashmir issue, then it has to get over its ‘tit for tat’ policy. While dilly dallying over the Kashmir issue suits New Delhi, Pakistan needs to see India’s bluff and insist on dialogue especially when it enjoys the complete confidence of the Hurriyat. 

With the UN once again refusing to intervene on the Kashmir issue and both the US as well as UK reaffirming that for them this is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan, it is abundantly clear that the Kashmir problem would have to be resolved between India and Pakistan only. Therefore, with New Delhi trying to use the Hurriyat issue as a red herring for trying to avoid discussions on Kashmir, Islamabad has to take a call whether it wishes to get into an ego clash with New Delhi and allow the Kashmir issue to fester just like it has been doing for all these years, or refuse to be drawn into the trap and walk the talk by agreeing to negotiate without the Hurriyat and thus prove its professed concern for the people of Kashmir. In the past, Islamabad has engaged in dialogue on Kashmir even when New Delhi turned down its request for including the Hurriyat in the parleys. So, if Islamabad allows the Indo-Pak dialogue process for resolving the ‘K’ issue to be held hostage by something as inconsequential as talking with the Hurriyat especially when both are on the same page, then would it be incorrect to infer that Pakistan is not that serious about resolving the Kashmir imbroglio as it claims to be? 

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