India's "peace offensive" in Kashmir has solicited Pakistani reciprocity and stirred the imagination of concerned people everywhere. Indeed, in many ways, the current media optimism is building up to that preceding the Lahore Summit in 1999. It is therefore worth asking whether the fate of this initiative might be any different from the one two years ago and what this might imply for Indo-Pak relations and political change in Pakistan.
Both countries and the third party seem "flexible" enough. The Hizbul Mujahideen offered the first ceasefire last July. Islamabad did not oppose it. Then India responded by one of its own last month. The HM and APHC welcomed it. Islamabad reciprocated by "exercising maximum restraint along the LoC" -- a euphemism for "reducing cross-border infiltration", a long-time Indian demand. India extended the ceasefire for another month. It has now promised to facilitate a visit of Kashmiri politicians to Islamabad for discussions with Pakistan's national security establishment.
Islamabad has consequently gestured a reduction of troops along the LoC. India may follow suit. A meeting between General Pervez Musharraf and Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a month or so would set the stage for a thaw all round. What then?
Consider the burden of history -- or more precisely, how many times since the Kashmiris rose up in revolt against India in 1989 the leaders of India and Pakistan have painstakingly arrived at exactly such a juncture, only to slip further back into hostilities after each such encounter.
In 1989, Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi agreed in Islamabad not only to demilitarise Siachen but also to sign significant cultural and political protocols. Next year, however, Mr Gandhi went back on his word. By April 1990, the two countries were on the brink of war, compelling Robert Gates, a senior US intermediary, to rush to the region and cool down tempers.
It took four years, and a change of two governments apiece in both countries, before a new round of foreign-secretary level talks could materialise in Islamabad on January 1, 1994. But the two day meet was cut short because the two protagonists couldn't even agree on which issues to take up in what manner. Subsequently, the various Islamic lashkars and jihadi organisations supported by Pakistan stepped up their assaults on Indian security forces and their civilian supporters.
Prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Inder Kumar Gujral met three years later, in 1997, in Male. This was followed by foreign-secretary level talks in Islamabad in September. A "historic breakthrough" was announced. India acknowledged that there was a "dispute" over Kashmir; Pakistan agreed to form several working groups, including one on Kashmir, for simultaneous discussions on all outstanding issues (Pakistan's all-or-nothing, "core" issue approach was diluted in exchange for an implicit recognition by the other side that Kashmir was not an "integral part of India"). However, Mr Gujral was faced with an election in 1998 and reneged on his agreement.
The BJP now bounded into power, India conducted nuclear tests and provoked Pakistan into tit-for-tat nuclear blasts, upping the ante. If India had at every stage backtracked upon an agreement with Pakistan to start smoking the peace pipe by talking about Kashmir, it was now time for Pakistan to square the ante and try to extract a deal from India. The Kargil blueprints were dusted off the shelves in late 1998 and plans were initiated to take advantage of the winter snows, exactly as the Indians had done in the winter of 1984 when they silently scaled the heights of Siachen in no-man's land along the LoC. However, unaware of what the Pakistani security establishment had in store, Mr Vajpayee was readying by year's end to take the bus to Lahore in February 1999.
The "progress" in Lahore was quite unprecedented from India's point of view. Pakistan ostensibly dropped the "core" issue approach. Kashmir became one of the "outstanding" disputes along with several others and the LoC became a sacred cow. It seemed as though we had come full circle to 1972 when the Simla Agreement was signed to bury Kashmir. But before the fruits of Lahore could be digested by New Delhi, the Pakistani national security establishment trumped the process in Kargil in May.
Unfortunately for the Pakistani hawks, however, the Indians didn't react as anticipated. Instead of exchanging Siachen for Kargil and strengthening the Lahore process of equitable disengagement, New Delhi hit back and a full-fledged conflict erupted on the border. Soon thereafter, Nawaz Sharif sued for mediation by Washington on Indian terms. This led to tensions between Mr Sharif and the principal military architects of Kargil led by General Musharraf. In the event, Mr Sharif's attempted sacking of General Musharraf and two key Kargil players in Pindi in October 1999 led to a coup against him, plunging Pakistan into its third military phase.
In short, every attempt by India to impose a settlement on Kashmir has been followed by increased Pakistan-abetted insurgency in the valley, by enhanced India-controlled terrorism in urban Pakistan, by the threat of war or, in the last instance, by war itself. In addition, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have, in turns, been tarred by the brush of being "pro-India" -- the former lost office in 1990 partly because the national security establishment saw her as a "security" risk vis a vis India while the latter was booted out in 1999 because he chose to challenge the same national security establishment over how to deal with Kashmir and India.
Meanwhile, shorn of its mainstream civilian supporters, Pakistan's national security establishment has progressively nurtured an ally of increasing power and belligerence -- the rabidly anti-India, militant Islamic jihadi forces which are ready to do its bidding in the region.
The current situation is marked by extreme volatility in the ranks of two of the three key players -- Pakistan and Kashmir. India, on the other hand, is happily placed. Having tried and failed on so many earlier occasions to negotiate a solution with Pakistan bilaterally which enables it to impose a deal on the Kashmiris, India has now chosen to try the opposite route: negotiate a solution with the Kashmiris and impose a deal on Pakistan with multilateral approval. Also, there is no internal threat to the BJP. Indeed, it has the support of the leading Opposition parties in its "peace offensive". The international community is on board. Its economy is healthy. And its defence budgets are soaring.
On the other side, the Kashmiris are fatigued by war. Divisions are emerging within the ranks of the politicians as well as between the politicians and the militants. The prospects of peace as opposed to war, coupled with some sort of internationally-guaranteed peace dividend short of full-fledged independence, are beginning to appeal to many. If this seems to be a "pro-India sentiment", it could potentially translate into civil war or internecine conflict in Kashmir if it is opposed by Pakistan.
Pakistan's position is quite problematic. Its military government lacks domestic and international legitimacy. The mainstream Opposition wants to overthrow it. The bazaar is set against it. The economy is in a shambles. Worse, in the absence of civil society support, the military government is held hostage by the very radical Islamic groups and jihadi forces that were nurtured by it to advance its aggressive "national security" causes. Much worse, certain hawks in the national security establishment see the present stage of the Kashmir struggle as the apotheosis of their strategy rather than as its downside. Thus General Musharraf is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.
If General Musharraf doesn't adopt a moderate stance vis a vis Kashmir and balks at supporting the indigenous peace process launched by India, the international community could isolate and cut him off. If he becomes too flexible, the hawks in his camp could try to derail the peace process by signaling increased violence in Kashmir and elsewhere in India. Indeed, if all else fails, the radical Islamic groups in the country could band together and try to oust him from power. The leader of the fundamentalist Jamaat I Islami, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, has already called General Musharraf a "security risk" and asked the generals to sack him because he seems amenable to the peace process.
Other such Islamic groups could subsequently get into the act. For instance, the Tanzimul Akhwan, a radical Islamic group led by retired army officers, has marshalled 30,000 supporters 100 miles from Islamabad and is threatening to march to Islamabad to pressurise the government to impose Islamic Shariah and extend the jihad in Kashmir. In the event that General Musharraf is perceived by such forces as "weak" or seen to succumb to Indian or international pressure to make an "unjust" settlement with India which amounts to "abandoning" Kashmir, the very national security establishment which he has helped to create could devour him. And there is no doubt in my mind that a radicalised Islamic national security leadership in Islamabad would provoke India into a conflict with Pakistan.
The issue therefore should not be one of peace at any cost. It should be of a just settlement on Kashmir which paves the way for enduring peace in the region. If India is seen to lack in sincerity or if the Indian government is unable to keep its word, as on several occasions in the past, the desperate deadlock can only be broken by war. That would be a greater tragedy than the one India and Pakistan are currently seeking to undo.
Najam Sethi edits the Pakistan weekly, Friday Times.
The Kashmir ceasefire: The complete coverage