THREE days after the victory bugles had been sounded in Islamabad, Indian foreign secretary Salman Haider met the press in New Delhi. He was his consummate self and difficult to pin down. But he couldn't escape questions on Kashmir. After evading a barrage of queries, he finally conceded that Kashmir's status—as an integral part of India—will not be discussed when foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan get down to the nitty gritty of talks.
But that was certainly not the impression in Islamabad, a few doubting Thomases notwithstanding. A jubilant Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif described the Indo-Pak foreign secretaries' agreement "to set up a mechanism, including working groups" on Kashmir and other issues as a breakthrough. "Kashmir is on top of the agenda," he said, adding that "India had for the first time recognised Kashmir as a problem between the two countries while Pakistan's policy remains the same on the issue". Clearly, the signal sent out was that Haider and his team had to eat humble pie as they signed the agreement which spells out Kashmir as an issue to be resolved between neighbours.
The agreement is seen as another feather in the cap for Sharif. He first swept the elections. Having barely settled down, he got rid of the Eighth Amendment and clipped the president's wings, with even the army falling in line. Next, he sent the naval chief packing. "If you work sincerely and seriously for a purpose then results are achieved. Sincerity and perseverance always pay," were Sharif's first comments as he walked into his parliamentary chamber after the two foreign secretaries' joint statement. Turning towards Outlook's correspondent, he said: "On the eve of the elections, you had said I was being too soft on India and I had replied that I was being realistic. It's been proved today that I was right even then." Even Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, though taken aback when foreign minister Gohar Ayub made the announcement in Parliament, gracefully congratulated the government for bringing Kashmir onto the negotiating table.
But it was precisely this that worried the Indians—the impression that India had made a big concession by agreeing on a working group on Jammu and Kashmir—and they wanted to dispel it. South Block wouldn't have been so defensive about Pakistan describing the agreement as a victory or a great concession from India as long as it was not misunderstood in India. So, while the Pakistanis were by and large euphoric, the atmosphere was relatively muted in India. But Indian diplomats were happy that Pakistan had been locked up in a mechanism on Kashmir—at least that was the brief from the political leadership and they had succeeded in it.
Then why be worried about how Pakistan describes it? Says Jasjit Singh, director, Institute for Def-ence Studies and Analyses: "India is very underconfident. We should let Pakistan describe the talks as a breakthrough." Concurs S.D. Muni, professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University: "I don't see talks on Kashmir as a basic compromise. The Simla agreement mentions it, Narasimha Rao's letter to Benazir in 1993 had mentioned it. In the '60s, India discussed Kashmir with Pakistan. We had carried four maps but the Pakistanis were not agreeable on anything".
Singh and Muni are right. It is not the first time that India has agreed to discuss the Kashmir issue. The real issue is: what will the two sides talk about, considering that the outlook of the two countries on Kashmir is mutually exclusive. Asks former ISI chief Gen. (retd) Hamid Gul: "What is the framework of these talks when both define the issue in different terms? We look at Kashmiri fighters as mujahideen or freedom fighters. The Indians insist that they are terrorists and involved in insurgency. Where is the meeting point? What will Pakistani officials do when Indians want to talk about Azad Kashmir? We would like to know from the government what will be the brief for the foreign secretary when he talks on Kashmir?"
The Indians have no doubts on that score—at least that is the publicly held stand. Haider insisted that they will hold discussions on Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), the transborder infiltration and militancy "which are our concerns". The agenda pleases the BJP. Says Brajesh Mishra, convenor of the party's foreign affairs cell: "We have no problems with the working groups or the talks. The parameters of the Indian negotiating stand should be as set out in Parliament's unanimous resolution on Kashmir in February 1994. It must also reflect India's concern on terrorism". This resolution had urged Pakistan to stop terrorism and vacate Indian territory.
BUT Pakistan is not in the talks to discuss POK's status. One of the non-papers it presented in January 1994was on modalities for holding a plebiscite in Kashmir. It wants to talk about reduction of forces and on human rights violations. Jasjit Singh agrees that the perceptions on Kashmir are different. He argues that Pakistan's locus standi in the Kashmir dispute can be questioned. "But Indian bureaucrats are nervous about UN resolutions. The Pakistani occupation is no different from Israel's stay in the occupied territories or Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait". Strong words these.
In fact, Singh sees the working group as a face-saving device for Pakistan. "They had gone too far out on Kashmir being the core issue. Besides, Pakistan was on a hook created by themselves by their intervention in Kashmir since 1989. Getting into a conflict is easy, but the final success or failure depends on your ability to disengage and this they didn't have". Indians point to the fact that Sharif has to showcase the talks as a victory because of domestic compulsions. Besides, it's a signal to the West and elsewhere, from where Pakistan is under pressure to start talking to India. Many in India see a connection between Pakistan's parlous economic condition and the need to improve ties with India.
There is a curious commonality between the two. Anything emanating from Islamabad is being projected in New Delhi as caused by Pakistan's domestic compulsions. And in Islamabad, Haider's statement that India would discuss POK was attributed to Gujral's domestic compulsions. A close Sharif aide explained to journalists recently that they were ready for such statements from New Delhi and will not misunderstand it. Speaking on TV on June 26, Ayub echoed the same thoughts when he was asked about Haider's comments. To an objective observer, it would seem as if the two countries are working in tandem to deflect pressures from each other.
Another common strain is that these two prime ministers—Sharif and Gujral—want to improve ties. This political will was evident during the talks. Pakistan foreign office spokesman, additional secretary Khaled Salim, disclosed: "In the earlier talks, both sides would try to run each other down. This time it was different, everyone was going out of their way and chipping in to ensure that the talks did not get bogged down". But he admits that there were some difficult moments too. "When we reached the part on the mechanisms and how to define the groups on Kashmir or whether or not to do so, we ran into problems. A lot of delicate drafts were framed and reframed. It certainly was a case of delicate diplomacy." But the morning after, the euphoria wore off and the question doing the rounds was: what will the two sides talk about on Kashmir? Just before they packed, the foreign secretaries confessed that the road ahead was not going to be easy. "We have no illusions about the complexity of the work," said Pakistan foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmad, with Haider echoing him: "It is not an easy path, we have to work carefully." Then, there were those who do not see eye to eye with Sharif. Chairman of Islamabad-based Institute for Regional Studies Lt Gen. (retd) Nishad Ahmad was sceptical about the talks. "They can be described as a step forward and we should not expect anything extraordinary on the issue of Kashmir immediately. We are confronted with an interlocutor who is hard to predict but easy to understand," said the general. Though September is a long way off, doubts are being expressed in Islamabad whether India has outsmarted Pakistan by bringing the issue of Kashmir to a bilateral level when in the past Pakistan had done everything to internationalise it. The wording of the joint statement does not indicate any shift in the Indian position That Kashmir is an integral part of India. India has all along insisted that under the Simla agreement the dispute should be resolved bilaterally. "Pakistan has compromised its principled position that Kashmir was an international dispute and must be resolved according to the UN resolution," said a retired pakistani diplomat.
Pakistani analysts are also intrigued why Islamabad agreed to include Siachen and Wullar barrage as subjects independent of Kashmir. "These are two parts of the Kashmir issue and therein lies an inherent danger in the delinking of the two. Tomorrow the Indian side can turn around and say 'let us now talk about Azad Kashmir'," cautions Hamid Gul.
In fact, the question of linkage between the various groups is significant. Haider did not deny the fact. Gohar Ayub, on the June 26 TV programme, went on record that there will be no agreement on Siachen, unless the Kashmir dispute is resolved. In India, some wondered why terrorism wasn't made part of the Kashmir mechanism. Muni's explanation: "Terrorism has to be a separate subject because it is not confined to Kashmir. The ISI uses Nepal and Bangladesh as conduits to India."
Despite Haider's stand, conventional wisdom in New Delhi is that Sharif may keep talking on Kashmir even though progress is made on the other seven issues identified by Haider and Ahmed. Singh argues that since all issues will be looked at an international manner, it has some meaning. When discussing Kashmir, India can raise its concern about terrorism and other issues which are covered by the subject peace and security. But sources reveal that India didn't insist on clubbing terrorism with Kashmir as it would have broken the talks.
But Sharif's sharpest critic was Jaamat-I-islami's Qazi Hussain Ahmed: "Sharif has become a security risk for the country more than Benazir. How can the government feel proud of talking to the Indians when they are busy killing people in occupied Kashmir?" For the moment, he is not being seen as a threat. But Qazi is not the only one unhappy with the talks. In Muzaffarabad, capital of POK, thousands of Kashmiris in green salwar kurtas shouted: "No dialogue, no dialogue, only jihad." Most belonged to the Lashker-I-Tayyabba, a militant group. "Sharif asks what we have gained in the last 50 years. Azad Kashmir was liberated through war, not dialogue. The mujahideen are not bound by any obligation," one rebel leader told the participants, who thrust their Kalashnikovs high.
Most editorial comments in English dailies of Pakistan have lauded Sharif for not reacting to hawkish signals from Delhi. The shifting of Prithvi missiles close to the Pakistani border, violation of Pakistani airspace and the killing of an officer across the boundary would have provoked any other weak leader to call off talks.
Sharif's hands have also been strengthened by those involved in the Indo-Pak track two diplomacy. "For the first time Kashmir is on the agenda of foreign secretary-level talks, which demonstrates the political will to start official-level dialogue. The joint statement reinforces the Simla Agreement and both sides have agreed to include Kashmir," says former foreign secretary Niaz A Niak.
But what is in store in September when the third round starts? One can almost feel a sense of déjà vu. The euphoria after the June 1989 meeting between Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir fizzled out in a year. In 1997, the two sides are still not clear how to go about it. There is no deadline for the formation of working groups. Singh's words may prove prophetic. According to him, "it is unrealistic to expect the working groups to find a 'solution' to the Kashmir dispute. We have not been able to find one in 50 years. The working groups may slowly start moving towards formalising a status quo, but over a period of time. Otherwise, it is unrealistic to expect Pakistan to accept it."