January 28, 2020
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The General’s Labyrinth

It was a messy PR job. First, a pugnacious Musharraf stonewalled hostile Indian queries. Later, he apologised for being blunt.

The General’s Labyrinth

As the weeks after Clinton’s visit lengthen into months, New Delhi is becoming increasingly puzzled by the enigma of Pakistan Chief Executive Gen Pervez Musharraf’s behaviour. On the one hand, he repeats from every podium his invitation to India to resume the stalled dialogue on Kashmir. But on the other, he does not seem prepared to take even the first quiet steps to meet India’s minimum condition for a dialogue, to wit that Pakistan at least reduce sharply, if it cannot stop, the infiltration of terrorists into Kashmir. What is he up to? The mystery only deepens when one considers Pakistan’s sorry economic plight and the pressure it is under from the international community to take the first step in reducing tension in Kashmir. A visit to Islamabad by 40 journalists, whom he hosted to a gala dinner on July 2, provided some answers.

The encounter was a public relations disaster. Musharraf began with an oblique reference to Kargil. Some people, he said, considered him a warmonger. He was anything but. Pointing out that the military is not usually among those who foment wars, he reiterated vehemently his desire for peace and better relations. He was keen on resuming dialogue with India and wanted to discuss all outstanding issues provided only that Kashmir was discussed first, for it was in fact the only source of conflict between India and Pakistan. "Take Kashmir away and what is left?" he asked rhetorically.

It was during the question and answer session that the exchange went out of control. Hard-bitten Indian journalists reminded him of Vajpayee’s trip to Lahore, his visit to the Minar-e-Pakistan to underline his own party’s homage to the new nation, and asked him how India could trust a regime that had even then been planning the attack in Kargil. They reminded him of his oft-repeated distinction between terrorism and jehad, and asked him whether this meant that he endorsed the infiltration of Islamic guerillas across the Line of Control into Kashmir. They asked him whether he accepted the validity of the Simla agreement as a basis for settlement of the Kashmir dispute and why, if he was so keen to enter into a dialogue with New Delhi, he was not prepared to meet the entirely reasonable demand that Pakistan end cross-border terrorism/jehad first. Musharraf’s answers to these questions were pugnacious, and as the tone of questioning became more hostile, he became more so. Kashmir, he said repeatedly, was not, and never had been a part of India. It was a disputed territory, listed as such by the United Nations. There was no cross-border infiltration of jehadis from Pakistan. What was happening in ‘Indian-held’ Kashmir was entirely a domestic revolt against despotic rule, by people yearning to be free. In an eerie echo of Pakistan’s arguments in 1947, he claimed that jehad was a part of Muslims’ duty towards other Muslims whom they deemed to be oppressed; as such while Pakistan was not abetting jehad in Kashmir, there was not a great deal it could do to prevent jehadis from going to the aid of their oppressed brethren in Kashmir. With each answer Musharraf dug himself into a hole that left less and less room for manoeuvre, and as the questions were repeated, the hole grew ever deeper.

So if Musharraf had nothing new to say, why the tamasha? The first indication that he had really intended to send a message to India came when the encounter with the press had ended. As Musharraf was returning to his seat, he suddenly turned around, went back to the podium and apologised to his Indian (and Bangladeshi) guests for his bluntness. "I have said many things that may have hurt some of you. I had no intention of doing this, and hope you will not take it to heart." The apology was spontaneous, and from a head of state, especially an authoritarian one, unprecedented. It reflected his awareness that the message he had wanted to convey had gone grievously wrong.

So what was Musharraf trying to convey? Despite the constraints imposed upon him by having to address India in the presence of the entire Pakistani media, he made one remark that was completely at variance with the pugnaciousness of the rest of his assertions, and he did so thrice. He said that any solution that was acceptable to the Kashmiri people would be acceptable to him. He reiterated that Pakistan had to be a part of the final solution to the Kashmir dispute, but significantly this statement was not coupled with references to the 1948 and 1949 UN resolutions. That ritual obeisance had been made earlier.

Musharraf had first made this remark in an interview about two months ago outside Pakistan. But that this time it was in his own country on a very public occasion opens a small window of possible accommodation, perhaps the last one. For Musharraf not only tacitly endorsed the ‘third option’, but left the way of determining Kashmir opinion open for Kashmiris, and by implication India, to decide. In short, were Musharraf to last, and were Delhi to reach some agreement with the Hurriyat that permits its full participation in the democratic process at a future date, Pakistan would be hard put not to come to the table and discuss a solution that takes off from the Simla agreement.

Musharraf also wanted to send two other feelers to India. It was apparent from the headlines in The News the next day. "General Pervez Musharraf offers Delhi no-war pact, talks on de-nuclearisation..." the banner headline read. Neither of these questions had even remotely figured in the Q&A, or in his prepared speech. He, in fact, brought them up himself while chatting briefly to a group of Indian journalists as he left the hall! But his media managers made sure The News made good the lapse.

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