Guest contribution: Zardari’s approach to Kashmir

March 18, 2008

Earlier this month, Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, said relations between India and Pakistan should not be held hostage to Kashmir.  The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone.

The writer is Vice Chancellor of the Islamic University of Science & Technology, Kashmir. The views expressed in this article, however, are those of a private citizen.


By Siddiq Wahid

 Soon after hearing Asif Zardari’s statement on Kashmir, I received a two line mass-email from a friend in Delhi saying that an unnamed “senior journalist” in Pakistan was “surprised” at the reactions to it in Kashmir. ‘Why is everyone so agitated about this positive statement?” the journalist had asked. My friend in Delhi wondered if the recipients of the mail had any thoughts on this question. I responded, tongue in cheek, that Mr. Zardari seemed a good candidate for an invitation to the many symposia on Kashmir so that he could be educated on the subject. My friend responded that I should be more “generous”, given that Mr. Zardari had come across as “quite reasonable” in his television interview. My friend’s response caused me to read and think a little more about this controversy.

It is clear that reactions in Pakistan to Mr. Zardari’s statement have alternated between perfunctory objections to benign disregard amongst the power-set, largely because of the exposure of a simple political reality about nation-states, to which Pakistan is far from immune: self interest. This reality has emerged with progressive clarity for Kashmiris ever since the funeral of the cold war regime. Witness how the radical resistance that surfaced in Kashmir in 1989 was used with such brutal efficiency by all the parties to self-interest so that today it is an unrecognizable shadow of its former self. In the face of this, the Zardari statement is “no surprise”, as averred by Gul Mohammed of the University of Kashmir.

The history of the pursuit of such self-interest is not recent. In the mid-1960s, Indian and Pakistani diplomats famously kept referring, in private, to the Kashmir dispute as a ‘simple’ matter that could easily be resolved once Delhi and Islamabad put their minds to it. However, statecraft demanded rhetorical posturing and selective leveraging, and the J&K problem was conveniently at hand; Mr. Zardari’s statement is an ‘outing’ of this reality. But sixty years has thickly layered the Kashmir problem and the last two decades are an indication of how complex it has become; in the light of that, as Sheikh Showkat Hussain has put it, we must regard the statement as that of a “politically immature” person.

Politically immature perhaps, but it is also that of a money-wise savvy person. If we read between the lines, Zardari was merely being the consummate businessman. What he meant, although not put as crudely as I am about to, is this: ‘I am a businessman and well understand all the talk about exchange of goods across borders, etc. India is a big market for me, so let us leave messy confrontations like Kashmir for future generations to solve because they are untidy for the bottom line.’ And what happens afterwards? ‘We shall see. Things will not go as wrong as the Americans and Europeans think it will, because we are no less reasonable than they are when it comes to such things as the proliferation of armaments and nuclear confrontation. It is that simple.’

This is how Mr. Zardari’s statement needs to be understood in an immediate sense; that of a businessman and political novice. But more disconcerting is the “surprise” of the senior journalist in Pakistan to the angry reactions from the entire spectrum of political thought in Kashmir, from the radical resistance to mainstream politicians. It betrays a lack of understanding of the Kashmiri frustration, for what is missed is that they are not responding to Mr. Zardari’s comments of today but to sixty years of political poor governance, political obfuscation and moral abdication. The timing of the statement, its cavalier affordability and the muted reaction to it in Pakistan can only increase the trust deficit that exists in Kashmir not just towards New Delhi but, increasingly, towards Islamabad as well. This is not good news for the unending ‘peace process’. The continued decline in the trust quotient will result in radicalizing opinions (of all shades including political, ethnic and religious opinions) in various directions, not just in Kashmir but the J&K State in its entirety; again, not a very good legacy for “future generations”.

But another observation of Mr. Zardari’s deserves positive mention – that the rapprochement between India and Pakistan must not be held “hostage” to the Kashmir problem – in its message to Kashmiris. And herein is the problem with the some of the reported reactions to the Zardari statement in Kashmir. Many of them have argued as if the India-Pakistan relationship needs to be held hostage to the Kashmir problem. A. Gani Bhat of the Hurriyat (M) has said that India and Pakistan cannot “live with the tension” of the rivalry between them. Such reactions betray a somewhat dated approach to the problem on the one hand, and a lack of confidence with the fundamentals of the struggle on the other. Is there really any of the “tension” that Professor Bhat refers to? Let us admit it, there is not. India and Pakistan have had a tacit understanding for almost six years now that the Kashmir problem is holding both their countries back, and that it must be resolved without damaging either of their sovereignties. Similarly, Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s argument that “supporting the Kashmir cause is in [Pakistan’s] vital interest” is a position, we must admit, that was jettisoned by Islamabad long ago. Indeed it has concluded (at least since September 11, 2001) that Kashmir is undermining its national interest and threatening its own security.

The point I want to make here is that Kashmiris need to find arguments that are not dependent on fears about another India – Pakistan clash over Kashmir. That is to give legitimacy to Zardari’s accusation of hostage-taking. If Delhi and Islamabad want to be friends, it does not spell doom for Kashmir. To react as if it is does is to admit of no independent existence of the Kashmir conundrum outside of the nationalist egos of the two states. Surely this cannot be the argument in Srinagar. If Delhi and Islamabad don’t exploit emotions over Kashmir any longer, it is because making Kashmir a bone of contention no longer serves their national interests. No more, no less.

If there is a need to analyse the stated objections in Srinagar and Islamabad, there is also a need to do so with what has not been said in Delhi about Mr. Zardari’s insight. It reflects a very confident and self-assured India. Why is this so?  “Shining” India, after all, seems to have given way to an “emerging” one, a term that is appropriately apathetic given the width and depth of poverty, corruption and other malaise that afflict this complex mega-country. Delhi’s silence, it seems to me, is in part a direct reflection of the ubiquitous American presence in Southasia. Washington has long been pursuing a strategy of cascading imperialism whereby it seeks to identify regional allies, whom it assures of its essential support in return for furthering U.S. interests in the region. In Southasia it has identified India as its primary partner, as suggested by Nicholas Burns in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. As such, its task is to watch over Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and, putatively, Burma. It is also seen by Mr. Burns as an overseer for China in his advocacy, rather patronizingly, that India must “ensure that China’s rise is peaceful” and, beyond that, also “prevent the Muslim world from turning its back on modernity.”  Given these global tasks, Delhi need not sweat over off-the-cuff remarks of a political novice.

The negative reactions from across the political spectrum in Kashmir to Mr. Zardari’s statement should demonstrate one thing to Kashmir-watchers in Delhi and Islamabad: that the Kashmir conundrum has now become one that is independent of New Delhi and Islamabad. It is in this context that the statement of the PDP Patron, Mufti M. Sayeed, that, “We should not mislead ourselves about brushing the [Kashmir] issue under the carpet as was done on earlier occasions”, must be seen. In other words: civic, social and economic issues in Kashmir are important, but the Kashmir polity is no longer content with running a municipality and wants to debate the central issue of their perceptions of sovereignty, or the quantum of their role in governing themselves. It is an open assertion of the fact that local aspirations can no longer be ignored, that it is the denial of these aspirations that has created the problem.

Although the PPP Co-Chairman’s remark on Kashmir is the spontaneous reaction of a political lightweight, it is reflective of Pakistan’s strategic direction in the context of globalization, despite recent “clarifications”. It is this that needs to be analysed and understood in Kashmir. Mr. Zardari has only understood ten percent of the Kashmir problem, and will soon come to understand the rest. Meanwhile it is critical that the State’s Kashmiris, particularly its radical resistance, and its non-Kashmiri population, together evolve and agree on an approach that is less Islamabad or Delhi centric, and more J&K State centric. All the peoples of J&K, admittedly of divergent political views, will recognize and appreciate it.

Siddiq Wahid

Ladakh House


March 6th, 2008

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