Some home-truths in any difficult situation cannot be avoided. After two decades of painstaking brick-by-brick approach to peace in the Middle East, two immovable objects still remain and can well retard the whole process, igniting a conflagration, viz (1) the Palestinians want full sovereignty over the Dome of the Rock because of Muslim religious sensitivities while the Israelis will never give up the Wailing Wall, considered one of the holiest places in Judaism and (2) the millions of Palestinian refugees, uprooted first from hearth and home in 1948 when Israel came into being, then through the years intermittently because of subsequent wars and civil strife, and living in squalid conditions in semi-permanent refugee camps, want the right of return to their homeland. On the other hand Israel will not (and probably cannot) allow this reverse migration to change the Jewish demography of their State to their disadvantage. Former US President Clinton made a last ditch effort to exact concessions for peace, both the sides remained firm on their respective stances, with that all hopes came to a dead halt.
The same analogy can be applied to Pakistan and India. India cannot ever hope to negotiate the difficult Kashmir problem with any civilian leader in Pakistan, only a military regime can do that. Similarly Pakistan cannot ever hope to make any headway if the Congress Party or a Janata Dal-type alliance of Center-Left is in power, the only hope it has of negotiating with conviction over Kashmir is with the Hindu-extremist BJP and other right wing Parties. Unless the hardliners of both countries are an integral part of the process, dialogue will be meaningless. And to complicate issues, because of continuing atrocities by the occupying Indian Army there has been a proliferation of disparate freedom fighter groups with widely differing thought processes and objectives. Given that they could be made to settle differences between themselves, will they be prepared to accept the logic of sensible argument? On the other hand, the same Hindu chauvinism that holds the BJP together with its disparate coalition partners will hardly be amenable to Indian PM Vajpayee’s sane logic stated in a visit to Kashmir, that “Insaniyat” (humanity) was more important than the Indian Constitution. Both sides will have to sacrifice their egos as well as material positions for a solution, the hard rock on which all peace moves may well collapse will be sovereignty over the vale of Kashmir with millions of refugees scattered in Azad Kashmir and all over Pakistan who will, Palestinian-like, want the right of return to their homeland guaranteed in any agreement.
Western analysts routinely describe Kashmir as a nuclear flashpoint but unlike their abiding interest in a Middle East solution to prevent possible war do they really believe that Armageddon is not possible the next time India and Pakistan go to war? As much as Kargil was an unmitigated political and diplomatic disaster in 1999, in the early days of 2001 it seems it is Kargil that has set them thinking that a Doomsday scenario is quite possible. Western analysts generally tend to take the line of least resistance in keeping with their commercial interests in far more populated India, i.e. stay with the status quo making the Line of Control (LOC) the international border. After more than a decade of simmering revolt and the death of over 50000 Kashmiris, this is a non-starter like any other ostrich-like Munich-type appeasement policy that fails to guarantee the freedoms for aspirant third world population. Increasingly the situation is becoming more complex, the rise of fundamentalism on both sides of the divide only ensures that the positions are hardening day by day, the problem becoming more complex and intractable, creeping steadily beyond the reach of logic and argument, sliding into a no-win situation where the end result of escalating violence will be a final nuclear solution visited on each other by India and Pakistan. How many times have we seen small problems escalate into a battle and then into a full-scale conventional war? Given its nuclear capability, will Pakistan ever be prepared to accept a Dec 16, 1971-like surrender? Faced with possible military defeat in the battlefield, will India shun the first use of its nuclear capability? Kargil was a distant watershed that brought us very close to a nuclear holocaust, what happens when such incidents take place far closer to the major Indian and Pakistani populace adjacent to the international border? Both sides have to recognize that the only way to prevent catastrophe is to have meaningful dialogue before extremists on either side box themselves into corners which will take us automatically down the path of destruction without a fail-safe mechanism.
One of the options is to go for a temporary status quo and allow a cooling-off period but freezing the problem without allowing Kashmiris on both sides of the LOC to intermingle is a non-starter. As the recent attacks on the Red Fort in Delhi and on the airport at Srinagar have shown, it is difficult to control hard-line militants in the field. Moreover the two regular armies have to put meaningful space between them, beyond the range of artillery, with an effective buffer force in between. From Pakistan’s point of view the element of risk is what will stop the Indians from occupying vital high ground, vantage points from where they will be impossible to dislodge? Conversely India may feel the same, adding that open borders will permit freedom fighters free access all over the valley, continuing their militancy with far greater freedom than ever before. Moreover a large influx of returning refugees may upset the socio-economic balance of a settled population, even leading to local conflicts.
Other than the danger of nuclear war, the US has an abiding interest to contain the spread of fundamentalism Taliban-style, in this it is joined not only by Russia and China but by all the Central Asian Republics. While India uses the sword of fundamentalism to tar and feather Pakistan, both India and Pakistan need to create conditions which allow modernity to counter narrow percepts of religion as practiced by extremist conservative factions on either side. The economic interests of the region, already backward by western and East Asian standards, require that tranquility and stability prevail in the region. In the end, India must look at its own security threat perceptions and remember its own Achilles Heal, that the greatest threat to its sovereignty will be by de-stabilizing Pakistan. Already an invisible divide separates the South and the East, most populace Bihar is almost a lawless state. With over 16 full-grown insurrections and thousands and thousands of militants up in arms, separatist tendencies will only multiply, India has already been forced to seal its border with Bangladesh despite the excellent government-to-government relations.
A concrete solution would be to (1) freeze the sovereignty issue for a decade (2) pull both Indian and Pakistani forces on the LOCs to peace-time cantonments not less than several kms from the LOC (3) install a well-equipped buffer force on the LOC with adequate satellite and electronic back-up to cover all movements, (the best would be to have a joint buffer force consisting of units of the Pakistan and Indian Armies but that may be asking too much). To keep it South Asia-specific one could have two brigades each from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, with additional troops coming from countries outside South Asia acceptable to both India and Pakistan, with possible UN monitors (4) free movement and access across the LOC to all in the whole of Kashmir, Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri population, with the proviso of being able to establish and run businesses but without the option to purchase property (5) the buffer force will have right of pursuit on both sides of the LOC to counter any militancy (6) free and fair elections throughout Kashmir both Azad and Indian occupied Kashmir, installing a government that would govern the area, forswearing the issue of accession or independence during the freeze period (7) run programs to rehabilitate the freedom fighter groups and bring them in from the cold. No solution will satisfy everybody but to obtain peace all sides will have to render meaningful sacrifices. No solution can ever be complete, there will be issues which will be-devil the body politic but in the larger interest of South Asia and the peripheral regions, we must untangle the Kashmir knot, sooner rather than later.
Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).