At long last, a series of conferences and engagements has given us tentative hope for the resolution of the 62-year-old Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. If these efforts reach their goal, it could not only transform long-troubled relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, but also substantially contribute to peace in nearby Afghanistan.
Kashmir has been at the centre of a long-standing territorial dispute between Pakistan and India, resulting in several wars, as well as ongoing military operations by India against Kashmiri separatist militants. The decades-old rivalry and suspicion between India and Pakistan has persuaded them to act at cross-purposes in Afghanistan. Pakistan wants a pro-Islamabad regime in Kabul to achieve its goal of strategic depth as a cushion against India. India, on the other hand, seeks a pro-New Delhi government to deny Pakistan this advantage.
A solution to Kashmir would considerably reduce the trust deficit between India and Pakistan and most likely promote cooperation on Afghanistan.
Over the past few months, India and Pakistan have engaged in closed-door dialogues on Kashmir in Bangkok, bringing together such individuals as former Pakistani Ambassador to India Aziz Khan and A. S. Dullat, the former chief of India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Simultaneously, the process is being supported by back-channel discussions between New Delhi and Kashmir’s moderate separatist conglomerate, the All Parties Hurriyat [Freedom] Conference, to resolve those issues that are specific to India-Kashmir relations.
Even though not publicly acknowledged by the United States, these efforts are seen as part of the broader remit of the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke. Even Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently stated that US interest in the region is served by encouraging all steps that “these important nations [India and Pakistan] take to regenerate their ‘back-channel’ process on Kashmir.”
On the civil society side, several conferences were held between September and December 2009 addressing the controversy over Kashmir, attended by leading intellectuals, politicians and civil society activists from both the countries.
One such conference, “A Roadmap to Peace”, held in December in New Delhi, called for the resumption of stalled dialogue between the two countries. Before this, two intra-Kashmir conferences were held in October in Srinagar and London. The larger aim of these initiatives was to find a way for India and Pakistan to reconcile their differences and focus on jointly tackling terrorism in the region, from Kabul to Kashmir.
Although the cumulative effect of these efforts has helped both countries advance toward peace in South Asia, there is still a long way to go. There is also the constant danger of the entire process unravelling if India and Pakistan’s governments fail to act and build upon the ongoing efforts.
The two countries are now looking towards yet another summit meeting during the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) conference in April in Bhutan. And India has already indicated its readiness to begin a formal dialogue through the Pakistani and Indian foreign secretaries who are meeting later this month.
There are several factors at play in the renewed engagement. One is the larger geo-politics of the region with the war in Afghanistan at its core. The unfolding situation in Kabul, where the Taliban are now being considered as part of the political solution, has suddenly reduced India’s capacity to influence the outcome in the war-torn country.
Accordingly, Pakistan is suddenly in a greater position of leverage, and safeguarding India’s interests in Afghanistan and its role as a party to the ongoing struggle for peace and security may provide incentive for normalised relations between India and Pakistan. On the other hand, Pakistan would benefit from a friendly India to ensure continued stability on its eastern flank.
The challenge before India and Pakistan is not only to address the dispute over Kashmir, their long-standing bitter bone of contention, but also to bring their divergent policies and positions on Afghanistan in line. With stakes in Kabul getting bigger with every passing day, much hinges on this new round of bilateral contact.
* Riyaz Wani is a Kashmir-based journalist working for the leading Indian daily, The Indian Express. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).