India needs to understand that the absence of violence in the Kashmir Valley is not peace, and that development and dignity for all Kashmiris go hand in hand. Pakistan must recognise that violence will never bring peace for Kashmiris, and will imperil all Pakistanis.
On the face of it, this summer in India-Pakistan engagement has been defined by the discovery of Osama bin Laden, the revelations of David Headley and Tahawwur Rana, and the intense turmoil inside Pakistan that has unleashed another round of deadly attacks there.
Even so, as the Foreign Secretaries prepare for their next engagement in Islamabad at the end of June, it isn't these events but three significant processes that will define their immediate agenda, particularly on Kashmir.
The first is the successful conduct of panchayat elections in Jammu and Kashmir that were completed on June 18. Despite some violence in the initial phases, even the killing of a woman candidate by gunmen in Budgam, the voter turnout was between 70-80 per cent. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah called it a “smooth ride” beyond his expectations, marking the first such election in 33 years not overrun by militant attacks, or “interference” from across the Line of Control (LoC).
In Pakistan's Kashmir (PoK) too, this weekend (June 26) will see Assembly elections and the selection of the next Prime Minister of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (Pakistan's name for it). What has marked these elections from the previous ones is the intense involvement of national parties like the PPP and the PML (Nawaz), with senior leaders as part of the campaign, as well as the participation of the Sindh-based MQM, which for the first time is contesting each of the 41 seats.
While elections on both sides of the LoC are strengthening the processes on the ground, it is the talks between India and Pakistan that have been building bilateral engagement, with all three processes in significant, albeit coincidental, tandem. Since April this year, the Home, Commerce and Defence Secretaries have all met to discuss issues like Sir Creek and the Tulbul navigation project. As the Foreign Secretaries prepare to review the progress, they will have some cause for satisfaction. While no movement may have been made on Siachen, the blueprint for visa liberalisation, and one of their most expansive economic agreements ever, with Pakistan committing itself in print to granting India MFN status, are welcome. The two sides have agreed to move from the current “positive list” of items for trade to a “negative list,” as well as new investments in the fields of energy and fuel. Most importantly, each meeting has ended with a clear timeline of the next meeting to resolve issues. An optimistic view of India-Pakistan engagement would even be that these bilateral issues need no longer occupy centre stage, as their resolution is in sight — freeing up interlocutors to focus on the two intractable issues: Kashmir and terrorism.
When it comes to Kashmir, it will be important for them to look at not the formidable size of the gap between the countries, but the remarkable distance already spanned. It is now acknowledged that the two sides came close to a settlement in the past decade. In an interview to CNN-IBN in 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh confirmed that he and Pervez Musharraf had come close to a “non-territorial” solution in Kashmir. While the Musharraf-Manmohan Kashmir four-step has been dismissed by many, let us consider the steps already implemented or are on the anvil.
The ceasefire along the LoC has held more or less since 2003. On our recent visit to Chakothi on the Pakistani side, district officials showed us how the end of daily firing between the armies has allowed them to develop homes and schools in 19 of the 22 blocks adjoining the LoC. On the Indian side, villagers returned to their homes in places like Kirni in Poonch after more than a decade this April.
The next step, of demilitarisation of the main towns in the Kashmir Valley, is also evident. Despite fierce protests over the Amarnath yatra, the Shopian deaths, and Tufail Mattoo's killing across the past three summers, it was the police and the paramilitary that had to deal with the situation, while the army remained in the barracks, the exception being a flag march in July 2010 on the outskirts of Srinagar and Baramulla.
Strengthening local governance is the next step. While both India and Pakistan are unwilling to discuss greater autonomy for the two Kashmirs, regular elections and relative non-interference by the Centres in the States, chronic two decades ago, is another positive sign.
Finally, the task of making borders irrelevant through cross-LoC linkages and through cross-border management of certain institutions. Despite the tensions post the Mumbai attacks in 2008, the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalakot bus services have continued, allowing Kashmiris to travel and see the other side for themselves, while truck trade has grown too — with officials discussing increasing the days of trade (from one to three), the crossover points (from three to five), the length of visas (to six months) and finally moving trade from the current, archaic, barter system to a banking one. These are all the steps, once unimaginable, but now leaving their imprint on Kashmiri hearts and minds. Interestingly, on various visits to Pakistani colleges, it is evident that the four-steps are now widely seen by young Pakistanis as the way forward in Kashmir, unthinkable a decade ago.
The reconciliation of the Kashmiris on both sides will, however, be incomplete without the return of Kashmiri Pandits to the valley. It is heartening to note that this summer both the Mirwaiz and Syed Ali Shah Geelani issued statements calling Pandits an “inseparable part of Kashmiri society.” The Mela Kheer Bhawani festival in June saw thousands of Pandits visit the Valley, though it may have been the recent election of Pandit woman Asha as the Sarpanch of Wussan village near Srinagar that caused the extra cheer.
The next step on Kashmir, however, will come only from introspection in New Delhi and Islamabad. The Indian government needs to understand that the absence of violence in the Valley is not peace, and that development and dignity for all Kashmiris go hand in hand. For its part, Pakistan's government must recognise that violence will never bring peace for Kashmiris, and will imperil all Pakistanis. Perhaps there's no greater proof of that than the case of terrorist Ilyas Kashmiri — who commanded 313 brigade raised by the ISI to fight India, but spent his later years planning attacks on the Pakistani military — from the GHQ attack in Rawalpindi to the Mehran naval base attack in Karachi — apart from his hand in the Mumbai attacks, the Marriott bombing and others. Kashmiri's death may be a mystery, but his diabolical life sends a clear message to Pakistan.
For both sides heading to their next round of talks, it is time to recognise that in the turmoil of India-Pakistan ties, a few windows of hope still remain. As an American pastor once famously said, “most people fail to recognise great opportunities because they come brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.”
(Suhasini Haidar is Deputy Foreign Editor, CNN-IBN.)