India and Pakistan’s missed opportunities on Kashmir

February 23, 2009

India and Pakistan aren’t always bickering, including over Kashmir, the dispute that has defined their relationship over more than six decades. Away from the public eye, top and trusted envoys from the two countries have at various times sat down and wrestled with the problem, going beyond stated positions in the public and even teasing out the contours of a deal. In the end of course, someone’s nerve failed, or something else happened and the deal was off.

Beginning 2004  and up until November 2007 India and Pakistan were embarked on a similar course and very nearly came to an agreement on Kashmir, says investigative journalist Steve Coll in an article for the New Yorker. Special envoys from the two countries met in secret in hotels in London, Bangkok and London to lay out a solution and after three years they were ready with the broad outline of a settlement that would have de-militarised Kashmir.

An abstract of the article  is here and the Washington Post  has a story on it.

Under the plan, the Kashmir conflict would have been resolved through the creation of an autonomous region in which local residents could move freely and conduct trade on both sides of the territorial boundary. Over time, the border would become irrelevant, and declining violence would allow a gradual withdrawal of tens of thousands of troops that now face one another across the region’s mountain passes, Coll writes.

He quotes Pakistan’s then foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri as saying that the back-channel talks had by 2007 become “so advanced that we’d come to semicolons.”

“It was huge — I think it would have changed the basic nature of the problem,” the article quoted a senior Indian official as saying. “You would have then had the freedom to remake Indo-Pakistani relations.”

But by then, then President Pervez Musharraf  was so engulfed in political problems that he couldn’t sell himself, let alone a landmark deal on Kashmir . Musharraf fought for the agreement but he had slipped  into a political death spiral and resigned in August 2008, the deal still-born.

As I said before it wasn’t the first time India and Pakistan took the high road to peace and then  faltered. Musharraf wrote in his book In the Line of Fire that he and then Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee came close to an agreement on how to tackle Kashmir in a 2001 summit in Agra but “mysterious higher powers” had overruled and “humiliated” Vajpayee.

Going further back, the two sides are also known to have reached an agreement over the Siachen glacier, only to step back at the last minute.

But you have to wonder now after the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 if there is any room for this kind of diplomacy. The mood has soured and it would take a considerable amount of courage for anyone to step up to peacemaking in secret. Or perhaps that is all the more reason they must once again throw themselves into the challenge?
[Photos of an anti-India protest in Kashmir at the weekend, and the Taj in Mumbai]


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