The telephone conversation between Pakistani prime minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Indian prime minister, on April 28, is believed to have renewed hopes for restored diplomatic relations between the two nuclear neighbours.
"Peace rhetoric" has been gaining momentum since April 18, when, during his visit to Kashmir, Vajpayee proposed a "peace initiative" and extended a "hand of friendship" after 18 months of diplomatic stagnation. However, the ‘issue’ of Kashmir, a 56-year-old ‘dispute’, will continue to be the traffic-jam in the diplomatic journey. India is "ready to talk" about Kashmir, but only to defend its stand that Kashmir is an " integral part" of India. Pakistan recognises Kashmir as a focal point of the peace talks, but is only committed to providing "diplomatic and moral support" to the "core issue". And for the ‘international community’ Kashmir is the "flashpoint" between the two nuclear neighbours in the southeast Asian subcontinent.
Diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan have been stalled since the attack on India’s parliament in December 2001, which, India claimed, was perpetrated by "Pakistan-backed terrorists". Each withdrew its diplomatic staff from the other’s capital. A tense border eased after 10 months of "nuclear tension". India continued its stubborn stand that diplomatic relations could be restored only after Pakistan gave up supporting "cross-border infiltration"; Pakistan insisted that Kashmir be the focal point of talks. The seeming relaxation by both parties has raised eyebrows, and provoked suspicions that Uncle Sam has been interfering.
On May 1 India obliquely asked Pakistan to drop its reported move to raise the Kashmir issue during its presidency of the UN security council, saying that the measure would not be consistent with the offer of friendship that Vajpayee had made to Islamabad. On May 2 Munir Akram, Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN, responded to India’s demand: the UN security council "will not discuss the Kashmir issue this month."
On May 3 Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, Pakistan’s foreign minister, apparently accepted India’s suggestion that both countries resume business dealings without resolving the issue of Kashmir. Pakistan is a leading cotton-producer and India the world’s biggest tea-grower, yet Pakistan buys most of its tea from Kenya and India much of its cotton from the US. Kasuri also put two gas-pipeline projects high on the agenda. "India has always said that it wanted to talk about trade issues and we have insisted that Kashmir should be discussed first...now we accept India’s argument and would like India to take the first step," Kasuri told the BBC. He proposed that gas pipelines from Turkmenistan and Iran be laid through Pakistan, and said that Islamabad was ready to give guarantees that gas-flow would not suffer even during war or hostilities.
On May 4 Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a senior leader of the APHC (All-Parties Hurriyet Committee), expressed fears that Pakistan might backtrack on the "Kashmir issue" in order to improve ties with New Delhi. "If Kashmir can be shelved for smoothening relations with India, there is every possibility that the Line of Control (LoC) may be accepted as permanent border for other reasons," Geelani said.
On May 5, when US secretary of state Colin Powell was asked about Kashmir, the role of the US and whether deputy secretary Richard Armitage was carrying a message to the subcontinent, Powell replied: "Richard Armitage will encourage this process of reaching out and the United States will be ready to assist both sides as they move forward."
On May 5 Jamali unveiled the much-awaited confidence-building measures (CBMs) to pave the way for dialogue with India. Among other things, Jamali wants the diplomatic situation between India and Pakistan to be returned to what it was before December 13, 2001, when the "terrorist" attack on the Indian parliament took place.
At a news conference on May 6, just hours before the arrival of Richard Armitage and Christina Rocca, Jamali read out a carefully drafted statement outlining the CBMs. These CBMs include six addressed directly to India and Pakistan, and two to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The India-specific CBMs proposed by Jamali are: immediate two-way restoration of rail and road links; restoration of air links, as proposed by Vajpayee; release of Indian fishermen in Pakistan jails and of 20 Sikh youths and 14 members of Rajha Laxmi Cargo as a "goodwill gesture"; resumption of sporting ties; restoration of the staff-strength of Indian and Pakistan missions to pre-December 2001 levels; and suggestions for dialogue between the two countries on issues related to nuclear security, as agreed in the memorandum of understanding in the Lahore Declaration.
One SAARC-related CBM was Pakistan’s decision to add 78 more items to the list of items that can be imported from India. The other addresses the issue of holding SAARC summit and the thrice-postponed South Asian Federation (SAF) games in Islamabad. In his opening statement Jamali also referred to the top two issues on New Delhi’s agenda: "cross-border infiltration" and "dismantling of [Pakistan’s] terrorism infrastructure".
Perhaps partly because of the peace rhetoric and the visits of Armitage and assistant secretary of state Christina Rocca to meet officials in New Delhi and Islamabad, two significant visits are not being given prominence in the media. On May 5 Ehsanul Huq, chief of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), went on a mission to the US state department, the White House, the headquarters of the FBI and for a meeting with the head of the CIA chief.
On May 10 Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to Vajpayee and India’s national security advisor, met officials at the state department and White House. Both Ehsanul Huq and Brajesh Mishra held independent discussions with Colin Powell and other US officials, although the details of their discussions have not yet been disclosed. Taking forward the dialogue process with the US, Yashwant Sinha, the external affairs minister of India, is expected to meet Colin Powell on May 14 in Moscow, a few days after Richard Armitage completes his tour.
Karl Inderfurth (Clinton’s point-man for South Asia) said on May 6 that the rulers of India and Pakistan are certain to win the Nobel peace prize if they succeed in implementing their new resolve to live in harmony. Inderfurth listed some key measures, apparently backed by Washington, including steps to resolve the Kashmir dispute, as prerequisites for the prize. He also recalled that during president Clinton’s visit to India and Pakistan in March 2000, he spoke about four principles ("the 4Rs, they were called"), namely the need for mutual restraint, respect for the LoC, rejection of violence, and resumption of dialogue. Inderfurth also commented that the recent change in Indo-Pakistan relations could give the US an opportunity to facilitate serious dialogue between the two.
Pakistan said on May 6 that it hoped the US would write off another $1.8 billion in debt to help its ally in the "war on terror" to "fight poverty". APP newsagency said that finance minister Shaukat Aziz had asked for the cancellation of Islamabad’s remaining debt to Washington at a meeting with Nancy Powell, US ambassador to Pakistan, a day before the arrival of Armitage. The US signed a formal agreement with Pakistan in April to write off an initial US$1 billion.
On May 7 Pakistan successfully put off a Congressional amendment that could have hampered a smooth flow of American funds and could also have hurt its relations with the US. Congressman Gary Ackerman withdrew his amendment after he was persuaded that it did not serve the US interest of fighting ‘terrorism’ and promoting peace between India and Pakistan. Ackerman, who is believed to be an active member of the Indian lobby in the US House of Representatives, had suggested that Pakistan should be asked to stop "cross-border terrorism" in Kashmir and give up its weapons of mass-destruction in return for US financial assistance.
Referring to the proposals of "de-nuclearisation" and "no-war pact" announced by president Musharraf on May 5, Vajpayee said on May 8 that those offers were not acceptable to India because New Delhi’s nuclear programme is not "Pakistan-specific", unlike Pakistan’s, which is "India-specific". Vajpayee also remarked that instead of signing a "no-war pact", Pakistan should sign a "no proxy war" pact.
On May 9 LK Advani, India’s deputy prime minister, made it clear that there could be "no friendship with Pakistan" and "no dialogue could start before cross-border terrorism is ended". Ram Madhav, an RSS spokesman, in Advani’s presence ruled out any possibility of India accepting the LoC as an international border: "The only outstanding issue between the two countries is the status of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir [Azad Kashmir], which should be returned to India."
On May 9 Zafarullah Khan denied that a formula for Kashmir’s division was being considered. "There is no change in Pakistan’s principled stand on Kashmir, nor [is] any formula for the division of Kashmir...currently being considered," he told reporters. When asked to comment on Vajpayee’s statement that Kashmir was an integral part of India, Jamali said: "This is not the first time that an Indian leader has given such a statement, therefore I’m not surprised by it."
India test-fired an air-to-air missile on May 10, a few hours before the arrival of Richard Armitage. India’s defence ministry confirmed the test in a brief statement. It said that all the mission objectives of the Astra, a missile developed for India’s fleet of fighter-aircraft, had been achieved. Armitage, hoping to build on the apparent thaw in India-Pakistan relations, held talks with Indian prime minister AB Vajpayee in New Delhi on May 10.
On May 8 Armitage had met with Pakistani leaders in Islamabad as part of a tour of southern and central Asian nations. Armitage said that his meetings covered "a full range of international issues," including preparations for Musharraf to visit Washington, but insisted that he had not come to the region to push the two nations to agree to a US-brokered peace. "The United States does not have a proposal in that regard," he said. "The discussions that I’ve been honored to have will be faithfully conveyed to our friends in India and they can decide how they feel about it. I want to dispel...the notion that there’s pressure from the United States. That is not the case."
There is speculation already that the US has chosen stability in South Asia as a key objective. Jay Garner, the former US army officer who is currently in charge in "post-war Iraq", said on May 3 that a solution to the Kashmir issue would be in place by December 2004. Though India protested Garner’s statement, American officials buried the episode.
Although the US denies its interest in the India-Pakistan "peace plan", there is growing fear that the US will pressurise both India and Pakistan to settle the issue of Kashmir and destabilise the nuclear tension in the subcontinent. No doubt the Kashmiris will yet again be ignored. This is not the first time that the problem of Kashmir is being discussed and decided without the involvement of the people of Kashmir. Only time will reveal US interests in the current diplomatic see-saw between the two neighbours, but there is no denying that Kashmir is the fulcrum of this sea-saw. The agony of the Muslims of Kashmir must not be bypassed in this futile search for "peace".