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Sunday Sentiments

  • Us and them

    Posted On September 4, 2004

    By Karan Thapar

    Today the final stage of the present round of talks between India and Pakistan will commence. The two foreign ministers will sit face to face. And they will talk. This, of course, is admirable and both governments should be applauded for starting and, more importantly, taking the process further. But this sunday morning I’m concerned about how little we in India know about our own government’s position on the Kashmir issue. Sometimes it seems to me the Government itself is not sure. They have agreed to talk – because clearly that was the right thing to do – but do they know what their aim and strategy is? Or are they simply talking for the sake of it?

    Of the Pakistanis, one thing is crystal clear : they know what they want and they have a plan of how to go about it. To put it simply, their aim is to get as much of Kashmir as they can – for themselves or, at any rate, freed from India. And their strategy, defined by Gen. Musharraf way back in Agra and repeated frequently since then, is the famous four stage process whereby solutions unacceptable to either side are identified and eliminated thus focusing attention on those that remain on the table. It may or may not deliver what they want. That, after all, is still to be determined. But what’s clear – and by no means denied by the Pakistanis, whether in public or in private – is it entails flexibility and compromise.

    Two things follow, although we might not as yet fully appreciate this. Pakistan has a clear aim whilst the means it has identified for obtaining it appear to give it the moral high ground. That’s certainly the implication of any strategy that entails compromise. The message is that we are prepared to pay our share of the price for a solution. The challenge to India is : are you?

    Now ask yourself the question : what is the Indian aim at these talks and what is our strategy for obtaining it? This is where my problem starts. I have a sinking feeling that we are only talking for the sake of it or because we can no longer refuse. If I’m right, this suggests that the talks are simply buying time and that could be very dangerous. Because once the process gets underway it can easily develop its own momentum. As this rolling stone starts to gather moss it could be to our discomfort and even to our disadvantage.

    Perhaps this is why we have no obvious or, at least, no known strategy to counter Gen. Musharraf’s four point plan. And I fear this means after the initial kudos was rightly accorded to Mr. Vajpayee for extending his hand of friendship, our claim to the moral high ground will appear weaker than that of Pakistan. The more their willingness to compromise becomes known – even if not fully believed – the more our insistence on the status quo will suggest a hard-line position. For if we are talking simply to keep up appearances then it won’t be long before the world starts to suspect we will only accept a solution on our own terms. Prima-facie that’s very different to the inherent implications of the Pakistani position.

    So this weekend, whilst I welcome the meetings between the two foreign ministers, I have my doubts and even fears. They are subdued at the moment, but they are beginning to niggle at and eat into the euphoria that is slowly and steadily disappearing.

    Might it not be the case that this round of talks, like so many others before them, will lead nowhere? That they will fizzle out in disappointment? That they will come unstuck because there’s no agreement on how to take them further? I hope not but I’m not sure.

    None of this is to deny that meaningful progress has been made in other areas – from trade to visas, from cultural contacts to sporting ties – but if the problem at the heart continues to fester these will be insignificant crumbs.

    Yet the irony is that this government (like the last one) can carry the country if it really tries to find a solution to the Kashmir problem. Today – but may be not forever – Indians accept the need for adjustment, perhaps even compromise and are prepared for it. But someone has to bite the bullet. That’s what leadership amounts to and that’s what we look to our politicians to do. But will they?

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