Kashmir: Musharraf's deadline

NEW DELHI, AUG. 1. There are two ways in which the Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's latest deadline on settling the Kashmir issue could be interpreted. One is to view his remarks as an artificial time-frame that could wreck the fragile peace process between India and Pakistan. The other is to see his comments as domestic posturing aimed at buying some political space.

In a recent interview to the Pakistan media, Gen. Musharraf has defined "a few months, a year or a year and a half at most" as a "reasonable time-frame" for finding a solution to the conflict over Kashmir. Gen. Musharraf was responding to questions on the Indian position that an issue that has divided the two nations for nearly six decades cannot be sorted out within a few months.

Gen. Musharraf had previously stated that if there was no progress in addressing the Kashmir question, he is out of the peace process. In laying down what he calls a "reasonable time-frame" for addressing the Kashmir issue, he, it could be argued, is putting India on notice.

Pessimists would argue that Gen. Musharraf has begun to shred the valuable ambiguity on time frames in the India-Pakistan peace process. Governments rarely negotiate sensitive issues against a pre-set deadline.

Is the India-Pakistan peace process doomed even before it has begun to take root? If the two sides begin to quibble over the time-frame for the resolution of the Kashmir question, the danger of the peace process unravelling is indeed real.

Danger signals

The optimists, however, could interpret the latest statement of Gen. Musharraf as an attempt to remove the misperceptions that have begun to arise between the two nations. The first signs of trouble in the India-Pakistan peace process emerged last month at the end of the External Affairs Minister, Natwar Singh's visit to Pakistan.

The statements the two sides put out after the meeting between Mr. Singh and Gen. Musharraf reflected a sharply different tone. While Mr. Singh's departing statement was full of optimism, Islamabad highlighted the need for the final settlement of the Kashmir question in a "reasonable time-frame."

The spokesman of the Foreign Office in New Delhi quickly questioned the interpretation of the talks between Mr. Singh and Gen. Musharraf put out by Pakistan. This was the first time in months that India has entered into a public argument with Islamabad. But the rhetoric on both sides has been restrained so far. But it could easily get out of hand if they begin to baldly assert their positions.

Gen. Musharraf now says he has had a "wonderful interaction" with Mr. Singh. His definition of "a year and a half" as a reasonable time-frame to settle the Kashmir issue was in response to a question on the attitude in India that it cannot be rushed into a final settlement. If the intention of the Pakistan President is to hint that there will be enough time and space to consolidate the peace process, the optimists would welcome it.

Simultaneous progress

When the India-Pakistan engagement was launched in January this year, there was no doubt that at some point or the other, the tricky question of the relationship between Kashmir and normalisation of bilateral relations would begin to undermine the peace process.

Pakistan insists that the focus on confidence-building measures should not be at the expense of putting Kashmir on the backburner. India argues that normalisation of bilateral relations should not be held hostage to the Kashmir question.

India is unlikely to object to the formulation of Gen. Musharraf that CBMs and dialogue on conflict resolution should proceed in tandem. If Pakistan begins the process of normalisation a more positive environment for the resolution of the Kashmir question could indeed be created.

On the Kashmir question, India has already offered a "sustained and serious dialogue." India has also proposed a range of CBMs, including some on Jammu and Kashmir. Conceding progress on the CBM front, Gen. Musharraf has tantalisingly said that some new CBMs can be announced when the two foreign Ministers meet in New Delhi in early September.

Positive unilateralism

Instead of getting trapped in an unproductive debate on what constitutes a "reasonable time-frame" for resolving the Kashmir question, India should focus on generating forward movement across the board.

Two sets of talks — one on promoting friendly exchanges to be held in New Delhi this week and another on trade and economic issues next week in Islamabad — offer enormous scope for New Delhi to come up with innovative ideas.

India need not limit itself to proposals that must be negotiated with Pakistan. It could act unilaterally on such issues as liberalisation of visas, promotion of group tourism from Pakistan, and opening Indian educational institutions to Pakistani students.

On the economic front, an offer by New Delhi to begin an unconditional dialogue with Islamabad on the problems of building an overland pipeline through Pakistani territory to transport natural gas from Iran and Central Asia would be a gesture that will find wide resonance.

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