Siddharth Varadarajan

Manmohan Singh speaks of two internal and two bilateral tracks for peace.

IN A major departure from the studied official refusal to engage with any of Pakistan's "out of the box" proposals on Kashmir, India on Friday signalled a new readiness to embrace fresh ideas in the search for "pragmatic, practical solutions" to the problems of the disputed region.

The ideas were contained in a speech delivered by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Amritsar during the flagging-off ceremony of the new bus service to Nankana Sahib in Pakistan. Taken together with his call for the speedy resolution of the Siachen, Sir Creek, and Baglihar issues, the Prime Minister's suggestions on Kashmir and his formally stated desire for a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Security with Pakistan have cleared the way for the peace process to be raised to a higher level.

On Kashmir, the Prime Minister outlined a road map for peace that would have four distinct components. Two of these would be internal to those areas of Jammu and Kashmir that are in the "control" of India and Pakistan, and two would be bilateral. The latter would involve the India-Pakistan official dialogue as well as a process of encouraging the two parts of Jammu and Kashmir to work out "cooperative, consultative mechanisms" between themselves to solve problems of economic and social development in the region.

By stressing the necessity of internal dialogues in both India and Pakistan, Dr. Singh has achieved two objectives. The first is to emphasise that insofar as there is a problem to be resolved, this concerns the entire territory of the erstwhile princely State of Jammu and Kashmir and not just those areas in India's control or within the boundaries of "Azad Jammu and Kashmir." This means the so-called Northern Areas in Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir would also have to be a part of the peace process. The second objective is to find a way of squaring the circle defined by India's unwillingness to include "representatives" of the people of the State in the formal India-Pakistan dialogue on Kashmir. By linking internal dialogue to the eventual resolution of the problem, however, the Prime Minister is acknowledging the centrality of popular grievances to the emerging equation.

Where the Prime Minister has broken exciting new ground is in his suggestion that the two parts of Jammu and Kashmir should be encouraged to develop cross-border institutional mechanisms.

These mechanisms provide the only practical way of making borders irrelevant while keeping intact the de jure sovereignty of both India and Pakistan over territories they control. Such an approach would appear to meet the `Agra test' mentioned by President Pervez Musharraf during the ill-fated India-Pakistan summit in 1999. During his famous breakfast interaction with Indian editors, he had argued that the two Governments needed to "negate" solutions to the Kashmir issue that were unacceptable to the other and focus on what would remain on the table once maximalist positions were abandoned.

Soon after he became Prime Minister in 2004, Dr. Singh said that short of redrawing borders or partitioning territory on a religious basis he was willing to look at any solution to the Kashmir issue. President Musharraf, while acknowledging that borders could not be redrawn, has also stressed that the Line of Control cannot be made into a juridical border either. During his visit to New Delhi in April 2005, he suggested that the only possible solution was to make the LoC irrelevant.

In the aftermath of the historic joint statement during that visit, where many of these ideas were hinted at or incorporated, India appeared reluctant to follow through with proposals that could give a precise shape to the notion of making borders irrelevant. The Indian bureaucracy was distrustful of the idea and was more interested in holding the question of Kashmir in abeyance until the two sides had built up a sufficient fund of trust between themselves. But with Prime Minister Singh now indicating a certain desire to break away from the conservatism of the Indian security establishment, a path has been opened for India and Pakistan to enter into a meaningful and practical dialogue on Kashmir rather than the reiteration of settled positions we have seen so far.