July 05, 2020
Home  »  Magazine  »  International  » Cover Stories  » Opinion  » Opinion »  A Changed Perspective

A Changed Perspective

With world opinion now in its favour, India needs to rethink its approach to Kashmir

Google + Linkedin Whatsapp
Follow Outlook India On News
A Changed Perspective
Nawaz Sharif's hastily-arranged three-hour conference with President Clinton on the US Independence Day holiday produced a short, carefully-crafted joint press release and cautious sighs of relief. The basic deal had two parts: Sharif would "take concrete steps" to restore the sanctity of the Line of Control, and once this had been done, President Clinton would "take a personal interest" in resumed Indo-Pakistan efforts to resolve their differences, "including Kashmir". In other words, Pakistan would call back the infiltrators from the Kargil area, in the expectation that the US would put Kashmir on its agenda in some unspecified way.

What does the Nawaz-Clinton statement mean for India-Pakistan relations, and what does it tell us, if anything, about the role the international community might seek in dealing with the subcontinent?

For Indo-Pak relations, the key question is what happens now. The chorus of protest from a variety of mujahideen-oriented political figures and retired generals makes clear that Sharif will pay a political price for withdrawing Pakistani forces from Kargil. On the other hand, his chief of army staff has publicly made clear that the army will follow the prime minister's orders. And from Sharif's point of view, the political price for not honouring his pledge is probably even worse: he would still be blamed for agreeing to Washington's wishes, but he would look weak. Needless to say, he would also incur Washington's resentment. All in all, leaders usually benefit by taking firm decisions and sticking with them, even if the decisions are controversial.

Assuming that Sharif keeps his end of the bargain, the process of withdrawal will probably be punctuated by continuing protests. It could take several weeks. But if the infiltrators leave and the fighting sputters out, India and Pakistan will face the task of resuming their bilateral dialogue. Both Sharif and Atal Behari Vajpayee have publicly said they wanted to get back to it and ultimately, it is the only way to shore up the unsteady security situation in the region.

Making the dialogue meaningful, however, will be easier said than done. The personal trust and the political commitment that were the essence of Lahore have been badly undermined, and mistrust has deepened. Leaving the dialogue to senior officials-foreign secretaries and others-has historically accomplished nothing. A renewed commitment from the top will be essential to restoring any sense of momentum. This commitment will have to validate (or re-validate) the agenda and sequence of issues to be taken up-an issue that has consumed inordinate amounts of time in earlier India-Pakistan dialogues. My candidate for the lead issue would be the "peace and security" basket: if nothing else, the fighting in Kargil has demonstrated that the peace of the region could benefit by an extra margin of safety.

Coming to the issue of the international community, the US government has been at great pains to stress that it is not mediating the India-Pakistan dispute, and has no interest in doing so unless requested by both sides. The fact that the joint statement promises President Clinton's "personal interest" in encouraging the bilateral India-Pakistan dialogue reinforces this point.

But the events of the last year-the two sets of nuclear tests as well as the Kargil adventure-have changed the dynamics of Indo-Pak diplomacy, including outside powers' interest in the subcontinent. Since the Tashkent conference in '65, the international community has done relatively little about the basic India-Pakistan dispute. Even the '71 war, once the fighting stopped and the UN debate about its origins was overtaken by events, was left strictly to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to resolve-a situation which suited India far better than it did Pakistan.

Thanks to Pokhran II and its Pakistani counterpart, the international community once again feels it has a stake in India-Pakistan peace. Although all serious observers knew that nuclear capability was present in the region beforehand, the tests made explicit the region's status as a nuclear flashpoint. They also focused attention on weaponisation and actual deployment. International concern over Kargil was thus a foregone conclusion. Contrary to the view of some Indian observers, the international community did not see this as an excuse to intervene. Rather, it was genuinely concerned about the implications of two nuclear-armed neighbours with major unresolved problems.

Something like an "international mainstream view" of the subcontinent has now emerged. Its main ingredients, sketched out below, do not appear in any country's policy statements on South Asia. But I believe these arguments are implicit in the way the US, most of western Europe and Japan have come to look at the region.

The world community, and specifically the US, is determined that India-Pakistan peace should not be put at risk. But unlike the situation in the late '40s, the West is not particularly keen on putting forth the kind of multilateral diplomatic exercise it advanced at that time-commissions, high representatives, and so on.

As for Kashmir, the "international mainstream" regards it as important chiefly insofar as it reinforces or undermines the peace. There is a widely-held view that the people of Kashmir-primarily of the Valley-have not had a genuine representative political process and have therefore become deeply alienated from India. This situation has sowed the seeds of insurrection-and hence of the danger of war, which is the world's greatest concern. Human rights issues in Kashmir also periodically raise international concern. But there is very little international interest in Pakistan's equities in Kashmir. Sympathy for Pakistan's claims on Kashmir was virtually wiped out by the international perception that Pakistan's leaders flirted with nuclear disaster in Kargil.

There seems to be virtually no international interest in redrawing the lines of control which have separated India and Pakistan for upwards of 30 years. The logic here has nothing to do with who was right or wrong in '47 and much more to do with the presence of nuclear weapons on both sides. Since border adjustments can't be made peacefully, the implicit argument goes, they probably shouldn't be made at all. There is not yet an international consensus that the world should actively push India and Pakistan to formalise the LoC as a border, but that sentiment is being heard with increasing frequency.

There is also concern that Pakistan's fragile political system may be under unsustainable pressure. If it is difficult to deal with Indo-Pakistan problems now, the logic goes, think what it would be like with a more fragmented Pakistan in which more extreme political elements held greater sway. This leads to an international willingness to go the extra mile in ensuring that Pakistan's economic problems and political pressure points do not intensify beyond the point that would cause the government-or the country-to collapse.

Finally, the "mainstream" still looks on South Asia's problems as primarily an India-Pakistan affair. Observers in the West acknowledge that India has concerns about China and that China made major contributions to Pakistan's nuclear capability. However, they believe that the India-Pakistan dynamic-including its nuclear dimension-operates quite independently of the Chinese angle. More importantly, they see no chance that China will put pressure on Pakistan in support of a more stable peace in South Asia.

Examining these mainstream international views, one is struck by how close most of them come to Indian policy-and how far they are from Pakistan's. Indeed, one could argue that the traditional South Asian diplomatic "default position" has been turned upside down. Pakistan has traditionally sought outside attention to compensate for its own weaker position and for India's unwillingness to talk seriously about Kashmir. Today, it would get very little support for its position out of a more active international role. Finally, the "mainstream" still looks on South Asia's problems as primarily an India-Pakistan affair.

The world is not yet clamouring for a more direct role in South Asia. The nato countries are preoccupied with Kosovo, and the peace in Bosnia still looks fragile. In any case, nato will not become seized of the Kashmir problem. The US is gearing up for a revived West Asia peace process. Beyond the countries that share the general "mainstream" viewpoint, Russia has its own problems at home. China does not want a nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan, but shows no interest in becoming more actively or constructively involved. And most fundamentally, of course, a settlement of India-Pakistan problems, and of the problems of Kashmir, can only occur through decisions taken and agreements reached by the parties directly concerned, and accepted by their respective political institutions.

But with the shift in opinion in the West, perhaps it is time for India to re-evaluate its traditional approach to managing this difficult bilateral relationship. The important issue is not whether India should welcome third party involvement. Rather, India needs to consider whether to carry on indefinitely the process of talking about India-Pakistan problems, with marginal improvements along the way but no real breakthrough, or to make a push for a real India-Pakistan settlement.

The arguments for the gradual approach are familiar, and have until now been compelling. Given Pakistan's overwhelming preoccupation with Kashmir and the strong grip of maximalist positions on virtually all Pakistani politicians, the only way of moving India-Pakistan relations forward has been conducting very slowly an essentially meaningless and carefully choreographed dialogue of the deaf on Kashmir. Since '72, the bilateral process has done this with varying degrees of success. India and Pakistan have managed to avoid war-both countries' highest priority. They have had periods of relative success in improving their bilateral security structure or their overall political environment. But they have solved nothing-not even a string of minor issues that both sides recognise should have been resolved years ago.

Perhaps this is the most that can be achieved. The raw emotions and political vulnerabilities that dictated this strategy are still with us. And yet, continuing this uneasy and fragile relationship deprives both countries of the larger dreams their people deserve. What would it take to start moving toward a real settlement of the Indo-Pak tangle, formalising some elements that already exist, perhaps agreeing on some new ones? What would help the leaders of India and especially Pakistan to accept some of the bitter pills such a settlement would inevitably involve? Are there ways that the international community could make this process, or these far-reaching decisions, easier? These questions cannot be answered right away. But they deserve to be examined with new eyes.


(Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is a retired US ambassador with long experience in South Asia.)

Next Story >>
Google + Linkedin Whatsapp

More from Teresita C. Schaffer

The Latest Issue

Outlook Videos