16 April 2005

Kashmir: 'Soft border' emerges as common vocabulary

16 April 2005
The Hindu


India and Pakistan are still far from a breakthrough on Kashmir. But by constantly coming up with formulae and suggestions, General Musharraf's aim is to ensure that the focus remains on the Kashmir issue.

Siddharth Varadarajan

NEW DELHI: In using the words "soft border" on the eve of his visit to India, Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf, has, for the first time, hit upon an element of a solution for Kashmir that has also been explicitly endorsed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

General Musharraf told the Reuters news agency in an interview on Thursday that the Srinagar-Muzaffarbad bus and other proposed routes within Jammu and Kashmir could be "the first step towards converting (the Line of Control) into a soft border". On May 24, 2004, Dr. Singh, in his first interview after being sworn in as Prime Minister, had made the same suggestion. "Short of succession, short of re-drawing boundaries, the Indian establishment can live with anything," he told the columnist Jonathan Power, adding that meanwhile, "we need soft borders — then borders are not so important. People on both sides of the border should be able to move freely."

While accepting the significance of what President Musharraf said on Thursday, Indian officials are cautious about the precise implications. "This is the first time Pakistan is talking of soft borders", an official told The Hindu. "But we shall have to see what precisely comes up in his discussions here."

At this stage, it is reasonable to assume that a wide gulf probably separates what the two countries mean by a "soft border." General Musharraf himself was quick to add that Pakistan would not accept the proposal that the LoC be converted into a permanent border. Indeed, by counter-posing `soft' with `permanent', the General has bowled the Indian side something of a googly since the opposite of `soft' is `hard' while `permanent' is the opposite of `temporary'.

Range of proposals

Given the Pakistani fear that India considers soft borders a sop for maintenance of the political status quo, what General Musharraf probably means is that a soft border is only a temporary solution. Amidst all the clutter of proposals, counter-proposals and trial balloons from both sides over the past few years, this is perhaps the first time that anything resembling a common vocabulary has appeared on the table.

To be sure, India and Pakistan are still far, far away from a breakthrough on Kashmir. But by constantly coming up with formulae and suggestions — in his iftaar dinner proposal last year he spoke of the divided state as consisting of seven distinct regions whose fates could be settled individually, and now there is the endorsement of a soft border — General Musharraf's aim is to ensure that the focus remains on the Kashmir issue.

Specifically, his concern is that India's approach of front-loading confidence-building measures (CBMs) might end up creating new facts on the ground in Kashmir that could then weaken the demand for self-determination within the Kashmir Valley.

Indian officials, on their part, deny that the emphasis on CBMs is meant as a diversion from tackling what Pakistan considers the "core issue" of Kashmir. "It is only by slowly building confidence and mutual trust that India and Pakistan can reach a stage where they can tackle a difficult problem in any meaningful sense", a senior official said. "Besides, the CBMs help the people of Kashmir, they are directly improving their quality of life".

At the same time, New Delhi knows Gen Musharraf is likely to use his time in India to call for the Kashmir issue to be dealt with promptly. So much water has flowed under the bridge since his last visit that it will take a lot more than a breakfast meeting with editors — scheduled for the morning of April 18 — to rock the ongoing peace process.

Three-and-a-half years after Agra, the General's preoccupations might not have changed but his language and formulations certainly have. As for India, its leadership today is far more self-assured and far less prickly than it was in the summer of 2001, when the Pakistan President's televised references to "Kashmiri freedom fighters" pushed an angry Vajpayee Government into abort mode as far as that summit was concerned.

Tangible gains

There may not have been any progress so far on the political aspects of the Kashmir issue but the 18-month-long ceasefire on the LoC as well as the starting of fortnightly bus services between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad represent tangible gains for the people of the divided region. Moving beyond Kashmir, the scale of people-to-people contact has reached such a level that it is difficult to imagine New Delhi or Islamabad turning the tap off. Indeed, judging by the public response to the intra-Kashmir bus service inside `Azad Jammu Kashmir', the Pakistan Government will soon find itself under pressure to accept the demand for additional buses and points of contact and transit, especially to Poonch and Jammu and even Kargil, where the bulk of divided families on the Indian side of the State live. At the current frequency and capacity, the bus from Muzaffarabad will remain booked solid for two years in advance if the applications for travel already submitted are anything to go by.

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