Playing Ball

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Against a background of rising violence, India this week initiated a surprise two-pronged peace initiative toward Pakistan and Kashmir. South Asians gave a mixed response, ranging from optimism to outright hostility.

First, New Delhi offered to hold talks with the All-Party Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella group of separatist parties in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. Then it outlined twelve conciliatory gestures to Pakistan. Contacts at the political level are not on the table, but India offered including sports and transportation ties, most notably a bus service connecting Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to the Indian-occupied part. Divided families will have a better chance to reunite.

Oddly enough, for many on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, the most concrete and exciting result of the Indian offerings will be resumed sporting ties. Despite major peace initiatives over the years, including peace talks offered by Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in April, peace has been elusive: the two nuclear armed countries almost went to war last year in the wake of a December 2001 attack on India’s parliament by a Pakistan-based terrorist group, and small border skirmishes are the norm. (If only the two cricket-obsessed countries could confine their battles to the wicket.)

Some see this as a move to isolate hardliners on two fronts – the Hindu hardliners, an important vote base for the ruling BJP government, and the separatist hardliners in Kashmir. The fact that hardliner Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani was tapped to talk with the separatists, in this formulation, is designed to pre-empt right-wing rhetoric:

“…the appointment of Advani for the Hurriyat dialogue should rope in the Sangh Parivar [Hindu nationalist parties] hotheads within the peaceful ambit of a composite Kashmir peace process that is intertwined with setting up negotiations with Pakistan.

With Advani at the helm for the Hurriyat talks, Vajpayee’s agenda in Kashmir should overcome the bureaucratic irritants that marked earlier efforts. His tenure of more than five years has been marked by highs and lows, so he will have the satisfaction of a unified front in engaging moderate Hurriyat leaders. The move should also isolate secessionist hardliners headed by rebel Hurriyat chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

In his new role as a negotiator, Advani may have to walk a tightrope, balancing his known hard line with the flexibility required of an interlocutor. He will be tested as he hones his credentials as an aspirant for the top job [Prime Minister]. He can neither renege from the commitments to Hurriyat leaders nor blame others for the pitfalls that lie ahead.”

The Hurriyat, comprising 25 groups, split last month, dividing 13 hardline groups and 12 more willing to deal with New Delhi. The hardliners rejected the offer, but the more moderate faction, headed by Maulana Abbas Ansari has accepted, though saying it will set the agenda for the talks. In contrast to New Delhi, Ansari’s Hurriyat wants Pakistan involved in talks. The Economist adds:

“India’s new approach may be partly inspired by a recent upsurge in violence in Kashmir, now in one of the bloodier phases of its 14-year insurgency. India probably hopes to entrench the divisions in the Hurriyat. Kashmiri politicians give warning that this might be counter-productive, enabling hard-liners to portray the moderates India needs to cultivate as quislings. But India also wants to keep up the pressure on Pakistan, which it accuses of training, arming and encouraging terrorists in Kashmir. It also hopes that America will come to see Pakistan less as a vital ally in its war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and more as a state sponsor of anti-Indian terrorism.”

While the Indian offers to Pakistan – which included free medical treatment of 20 Pakistani children and amnesty for fisherman astray in each other’s waters – were welcomed internationally, some on the Hindu right within India said the new links would only encourage and enable further cross-border terrorism. And while Pakistan’s Foreign Office issued a cautious statement welcoming the moves, it expressed dismay that India didn’t want to talk about Kashmir with Islamabad. The Indian decision to talk to separatists and Pakistanis in different talks has some Pakistani analysts saying New Delhi’s initiative is a ploy to cut Pakistan out of Kashmir talks:

“‘The Indian proposals lack depth and sincerity to resolve the major issues like Kashmir,’ political analyst and editor of influential Friday Times weekly, Najam Sethi, told AFP. Sethi said while every small step to build mutual confidence was welcome the proposals indicated India’s intent to ‘completely delink the Kashmir issue from the peace process with Pakistan.'”

‘There is no mention of bringing Pakistan into a three-way dialogue and clearly the Indians mean to find their own solution to Kashmir in which Pakistan does not figure is the message that they are sending,’ Sethi said.”

Political analyst and writer Mohammad Afzal Niazi said the Indians had kept all substantive issues out of the package. ‘What is important is not what is in the package, but what is not in the package…They have deftly camouflaged their attempt to completely sideline Kashmir and dialogue.’

Washington, busy with Iraq and, lately, worried about Iran, has largely been absent from quarelling between India and Pakistan, though there has been considerable concern about the viability of Musharraf’s dictatorship in Pakistan, and a recent report of a nuclear deal between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, denied by Islamabad and Riyadh, and dismissed by Washington.

Within India, there are hardliners and extremists. Within those Kashmiris that seek separation from India, there are local groups mobilized by a cultural identity and those dominated by foreigners motivated by an Islamist agenda. Kashmiri groups are divided between those who want an independent Kashmir and those who seek union with Pakistan.

Earlier peace initiatives have failed, so expectations for this new development are low. The Economist suggests that there is room for optimism, but without India-Pakistan talks about Kashmir, the deal seems incomplete:

“‘The hand of friendship’ Mr Vajpayee extended to Pakistan in April has achieved few concrete results. India says cross-border infiltration in Kashmir continues; certainly the killing goes on. But the gesture proved very popular in India. With important state elections due in December, and a general election next year, Mr Vajpayee may want to milk that popularity for all its vote-pulling power. But effecting a transformation in India’s relations with its neighbour has been a recurrent theme of his term in office. He is a statesman and wants to be remembered as such. But unless India agrees to talk about Kashmir, Pakistan will continue to treat Mr. Vajpayee as just another Indian politician.”


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