16 July 2007

Pushing the envelope on peace in Kashmir

The Prime Minister’s Jammu speech takes the logic of “cooperative mechanisms” one step further, envisaging the shared use of the disputed region’s land and water resources across the Line of Control. But even as Dr. Singh comes up with new and imaginative ideas on the Indo-Pak front, the internal link in the overall peace process remains weak.

16 July 2007
The Hindu

Pushing the envelope on peace in Kashmir

Siddharth Varadarajan

Just when General Musharraf’s domestic difficulties and the continuing scourge of terrorism in the subcontinent had given the impression that the peace process between India and Pakistan was on the back-burner, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has reminded us all of the enormous dividend awaiting the region if the evolving peace formula is allowed to go forward.

At the heart of this formula, of course, lies the simple proposition that both General Musharraf and Dr. Singh have independently made. That if the Line of Control dividing Jammu and Kashmir can neither be redrawn nor turned into a permanent marker of division, every effort must be made to render it “irrelevant.”

Both men have repeated this formulation so often that without anybody realising it, an irreversible paradigm shift in the manner the Kashmir issue is framed has taken place.

This does not mean India and Pakistan are entirely on the same page on a range of issues, from the meaning and timing of “demilitarisation” to the specific territory to which this formula is to be applied. And yet, the fact that a robust back-channel dialogue has been going on for more than a year suggests both sides are trying to make the “LoC irrelevant” formula work.

At a speech in Amritsar in March 2006, Dr. Singh spoke of people on both sides of the LoC being able to “move more freely and trade with one another.” He also said that he envisaged a situation “where the two parts of Jammu & Kashmir can, with the active encouragement of the governments of India and Pakistan, work out cooperative, consultative mechanisms so as to maximise the gains of cooperation in solving problems of social and economic development of the region.”

Now, in a major address to the University of Jammu on Sunday just one month ahead of the 60th anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence — the Prime Minister has taken the idea of “cooperative, consultative mechanisms” between “the two parts of Jammu and Kashmir” one step further.

To the Amritsar formula of people and goods moving across the LoC, Dr. Singh has thrown in “services” and “ideas.” He also said that if the two governments succeed in making the LoC irrelevant by turning it into a “line of peace” -- the phrase was first used by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in an interview to Kuldip Nayyar on the eve of the Shimla Conference of 1972 — then the natural resources of the state need no longer be points of contention or a source of conflict but could be used for the benefit of all its people. “We could, for example, use the land and water resources of the region jointly for the benefit of all the people living on both sides of the Line of Control,” the Prime Minister said. Of course, Dr. Singh was equally upfront about the one caveat the Government of India will insist upon: “It goes without saying that this can only happen once terrorism and violence end permanently.”

Were they to materialise, such joint projects would go a long way towards the rational utilisation of Jammu and Kashmir’s ample natural resources. As matters stand, projects executed on the Indian side tend to raise the hackles of Pakistan, as the Wullar barrage and Baglihar issues have shown.

By raising the prospect of joint projects straddling two separate legal and administrative jurisdictions, the Prime Minister is also signalling India’s willingness seriously to examine dispute resolution models from Ireland and the Tyrol region — split between Austria and Italy where administrative linkages exist across sovereign boundaries.

The fact that Dr. Singh has used a platform in Jammu to elaborate on this formula is also a tactically astute move.

If the peace process is to succeed, all regions of the State have to be carried along, especially Jammu, where the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party might attempt to mount an obstructionist challenge. In his Jammu speech, the Prime Minister drew attention to the need for internal autonomy within the State and recognition of the “cultural distinctiveness of every community” as an organic part of the overall “Naya Jammu and Kashmir” that is emerging.

At the same time, it is precisely the domestic front that represents the evolving peace process’s weakest link.

As the Prime Minister himself acknowledged, the Government has not succeeded in drawing secessionist groups into its round-table conferences. The dialogue with the Hurriyat is also at a standstill. Even the “zero tolerance” towards human rights violations that Dr. Singh had promised would be the hallmark of his administration has failed to materialise.

While the kind of “demilitarisation” advocated by General Musharraf is rightly considered premature given the continuing level of terrorist activities, there is no reason why deployments in the State cannot be made less overbearing and intrusive for ordinary Kashmiris.

When a consensus of sorts was emerging on this question among the Kashmiri political forces earlier this year, the Governor, Lt. Gen. S.K. Sinha (retd.), waded into the debate with a de facto veto. As an Army veteran with long years of gubernatorial service in States with active insurgencies, he no doubt had his reasons. But sometimes, the length of service itself can become a burden and cloud one’s judgment.

As he turns his attention to the domestic front, therefore, the Prime Minister ought to consider whether the internal peace process he has in mind might not be better served by a civilian governor. Not only would this send out a refreshing signal to the people of the State but a civilian would likely be more in tune with the rhythms and sentiments of civil society.

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