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The Rediff Interview/Vice-Admiral Verghese Koithara (retd)

September 03, 2004

After having intimately studied various international conflicts like Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, and West Asia, Vice-Admiral Verghese Koithara (retd), 64, is convinced that the Kashmir issue can be resolved. "I have come to Kashmir through the nuclear route," says Verghese, who recently released his second book, In Kashmir, Through A Realist Lens, which examines the India-Pakistan conflict in today's context.

Kochi-born Koithara was the Indian Navy's chief of logistics and also served as deputy chief of defence planning services. After retirement in 1998, his work on nuclear issues and peace processes led to a book, Society, State and Security, which examined India's security environment.

Low-key and affable, Koithara's new book compares the conflict overáKashmir with the conflicts in Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, and WestáAsia.áDays before the book was released, he explained to Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt why he believes the Kashmir issue can be resolved, and how. Excerpts:

Why one more book on Kashmir?

I was studying the nuclear issue in a global and South Asian context. While reading more on it I realised that the nuclear issue is not a standalone issue. One cannot separate nuclear confidence-building measures from general CBMs. Pretty soon I zeroed in on Kashmir. Unless Kashmir is solved it will be very, very difficult to provide conventional CBMs or nuclear security. Then I started with the basic premise that India is not going to give one square centimetre of land from what it has. That you can take as a given. Then I tried to figure out whether we can have peace with Pakistan without giving up any land.

I feel that you can have peace with Pakistan with the Line of Control becoming permanent. This deal is possible only if Pakistan's honour and Pakistan's security remain intact. The catch is, how do you do that? That led me toáthe conclusion that the only way to satisfy Pakistan is by talking to Kashmiris directly and by giving autonomy to them. We should link up the peace process by giving the LoC a permanent status, by giving autonomy to J&K. The art lies in the process you adopt in reaching this stage. It's a practical approach, which can succeed provided one knows how to go about it.

You have studied other conflicts in the world. How would you compare Kashmir with them?

In any conflict there are three issues. First is the structure of conflict. The states involved and their stakes in the conflict are part of it. The attitude of two sides towards each other is another important area. Behaviour is another dimension that gives shape to a conflict. Like, how is government behaving? At many a place, as soon as someone crosses the border, soldiers start firing. In many conflicts the government behaves in a certain fashion, which vitiates the atmosphere.

I found in my studies that the India and Pakistan conflict is in areas of "attitude and behaviour" and not in the area of structure. We are not having a clash of stakes. To say that India's composite nationalism poses a permanent threat to Pakistan or that Pakistan's Islamic nationalism and inter-State relations with Muslims elsewhere poses a permanent threat to India is simply not true today. In the 1950s this argument was valid when both were threats to each other's existence.

How can you justify this argument in view of the support for the two-nation theory, even now, in Pakistan?

Well, Pakistan has just one-third of the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. They are in no position to say that Pakistan is a homeland for other Muslims. At the time of Partition they had two-thirds of the Muslims with them, so it was a threat to India. But over the years Pakistan has not been able to incite Indian Muslims outside Kashmir. Pakistan's Islamic nationalism is no more a threat to India.

Pakistan's fear that India can undo Partition is also misplaced now. No Indian at any strategic level wants an 'Akhand Bharat' which will triple the number of Muslims in this country. If you put aside emotional reasons, there is nothing at stake for Pakistan. Pakistan is getting waters of three rivers because the Indus Waters Treaty is in place. There are no symbols of any religious value for Pakistan in the valley.

In terms of the security of Pakistan, the LoC is a very good border. I have explained that in a chapter in my book. Both countries have more or less retained their land in the last two wars. This has proved that the LoC is not a vulnerable but a secure border. There is no oil in Kashmir. If Kashmir had oil it would have been a different story. Kashmir is entirely a game of politicized emotions.

So how does one move ahead now?

In all peace processes there is something called no-agreement alternatives. These alternatives may not be very good, but can be still acceptable and are not disastrous. When you have an idea that conflict will remain for an indefinite period, then nobody explores the solution. There is no intense desire for peace at a societal level. People then start managing the situation better to have tactical gain, forgetting about the strategic approach. If India feels that the LoC as a border will not get peace, it will not try at all. If Pakistan feels that the LoC as a border will be hailed by India as a victory and if it finds that it will lose security and izzat [honour] both, then they will not accept.

I strongly believe that there are only two significant parties to the India-Pakistan dispute. One isáthe Indian elite, that 5 per cent of people who shape opinion, mould views, and control the discourse. This class has now realised that the situation could be better than where we are now.

The other party to this business is the Pakistan Army. Not General Musharraf. It's the Pakistan Army, the institution. Unless the Indian elite and the Pakistan Army feel that a peace is possible which safeguards their respective national interests, things will not move. Both are considered guardians of their country's national interests. Also, their group's interests should be served.áThe Indian elite will not let go of Delhi's control over Kashmir because, after all, the Indian elite is the strongest centralising force in this country. Today, they have adequate 'no-agreement over Kashmir' logic. In the same way, the Pakistan Army will not advocate peace if their group interest is destroyed.

Would Pakistanis agree to the LoC asáthe border?

I have talked to so many Pakistanis, including retired generals. They don't say it through words, but they would accept it if Pakistan's security is addressed and the Pakistan Army's izzat is not compromised.

India should understand that Pakistan is in a very difficult situation, but they are not in an unbearable situation. Even if you are in an unbearable situation like North Korea, you may not agree to peace. Democratic institutions in Pakistan are so weak that the Pakistan Army will not lose power. But they can turn to the Turkish model. It will help the peace process if they turn to the Turkish model rather than the Burmese model.

Can you tell us about your in-depth study of the Kashmir conflict vis-Ó-vis Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, and the Israel-Palestine conflict?

In 1998, just after the Good Friday agreement was signed, I was in Northern Ireland. In view of the depth of animosity between the warring factions, I was surprised to see that the agreement was made possible. I felt it was much worse than the India and Pakistan situation. If you go to Belfast you will know how communities are wholly segregated with the help of roadblocks. If you are a Protestant moving in a Catholic area you are at risk, and vice versa.

The country was divided in 1921 and the agreement was signed in 1998, so it has been a longer conflict than ours. Proportionately, the number of casualties is as high as ours. They are just two million people and casualties are 15,000.

From the Kashmir point of view, the Israel and Palestine conflict is interesting to compare. The structure of the conflict is so difficult to resolve that bad behaviour of leaders flows naturally from the structure. There isáthe Al Aqsa mosque from where Prophet Mohammad is believed to have gone to heaven. It is situated right on top of Solomon's Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which is the holiest Jewish place. How can either [side] give up?

Second, Israel gets the bulk of its water from the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Israel is a dry, parched country like Rajasthan. How can they give up water? They are building a wall too, but they are surrounded by Arabs. It is very difficult for Israelis to have an arrangement where they can feel secure.

In this conflict you are dealing with two different races. The elite of Israel have largely come from European countries. And on the other side are the Middle Eastern Arabs. They [these two groups] have absolutely no cultural links between them. Language, religion, culture, and level of modernity at a societal level are completely different. How can they talk?

India and Pakistan are not facing such differences. In Sri Lanka, the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] came into prominence only after Sinhala was made the sole national language and Buddhism got prominence. The LTTE got social support. A core entity of Tamils, maybe not more than 2 per cent, cannot be taken away from the LTTE. Nevertheless, the Sri Lankan government tried it.

There is some relationship of this factáwith Kashmir. There are a large number of militants sponsored by Pakistanis, but there are these unsatisfied groups who provide oxygen to these groups. Another important point isáthe issue of autonomy. How the debate over autonomy evolves is important to know. It is interesting to watch Sri Lanka from that angle.

Did studying about other disputes make you more confident about a solution to the Kashmir problem?

See, there are no lessons to be learnt because each conflict is one of its kind. But insights do help. My broad conclusion is that in the India-Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Northern Ireland conflicts, structures are somewhat controllable, but that can't be said about the Israel-Palestine conflict. The most disastrous thing about the India-Pakistan conflict is to think that we are in the same predicament as the Israelis and Palestinians.

Organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad argue that fundamentalists of Pakistan are against Hindus and Kashmir for them is an Islamic fight against Hindustan.

I think in Pakistan there are more people against Americans and Christians than against Hindus or India. I have written a chapter on these conflict-drivers. I have debated this point. But I think these arguments are merely for daily breakfast discussion. Some sections in India see Indian Muslims as a potential fifth column. It is necessary to resolve the tensions between India and Pakistan.

If Pakistani militants are not part of an Islamic jihad, then why are they fighting at all in Kashmir?

It's fundamentally a security conflict. India and Pakistan both feel that if any concession is given, then their security will be eroded. Someone should come up with a device that will strengthen the notions of security of both.

How can any Indian analyst ignore the Islamisation of Pakistan under the so-called Zia plan?

At one point the Pakistan Army was the most secular group within Pakistan. Like us they obviously have a British background.

As we know, ináthe Cold War era the Pakistan Army was closely associated with the Americans too. The Islamisation of Pakistan began in 1974 with a sense of exploiting a global opportunity. When the price of oil exploded three times and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman had plenty of money to dispense with, Z A Bhutto seizedáthe opportunity. He knew that he had to become much more Islamic to get that money.

General Zia found that this money is good for the military as well. He shaped the army by promoting Islam-oriented officers like never before. And there is no army like Islamists. They are extremely difficult to control. Look at Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Algeria. Wherever the army is dominating they have to keep Islamists under control.

The army is a modern institution. It deals with modern equipment and cannot be married with mediŠval thinking. Islamists have no stake in the State like armies have. Islamists have a stake only in religion.

When Afghanistan was invaded by Russia, Pakistan was threatened. They were never comfortable with any Afghan government. Remember, when the Afghan war started, mujahideen was a favourite word of the Americans. Pakistan got Saudi money and American backing. In that process the Islamisation of the Pak army got strengthened in the 1980s.

My point is that that process has nothing to do with the Hindu-Muslim factor. America, the Afghanistan war, and Saudi money strengthened the Pakistan Army's islamisation. India was not at all in the picture. The ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] and figures like Hamid Gul and Javed Nasir became powerful. At that time in Kashmir we had this hugely fraudulent election, which changed a lot.

Why does the Islamist mindset, which exploited the post-election unrest in Kashmir valley, not discourage you?

Because those circumstances no longer exist. Now, the Americans are absolutely against mujahideen or Islamists. How can Pakistani leaders manage the Americans on the one hand, who are badly hurt by Islamists, and the Islamists on the other side? It's a dichotomy. I believe the Islamists can be reined in now because a supportive environment is not there. That phase of history of the eighties is over.

How do you see former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's peace efforts?

On the issue of Kashmir I don't lay much weight on individual leaders on both sides. As I said before, Indian elites and the Pakistan Army matter. From 1947 onwards, our most powerful prime ministers like Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and to some extent Rajiv Gandhi had very little control over our foreign policy vis-Ó-vis Pakistan. They can deal with America or Britain in their own way, but with Pakistan it's a national consensus that works. No powerful PM has had enough power to shift this consensus on a personal basis.

In Pakistan too, Ayub Khan, Bhutto, Zia, Nawaz Sharief (in his second innings), and now Musharraf, none of these powerful leaders has hadápersonal control over moving the Kashmir issue. Only the institution called the Pakistan Army matters. The Pakistan Army at its top works like a cabinet. No army chief can give away anything. Therefore, the Pakistan Army will have to deal with the Indian elite, which includes the Indian media and not just the PM of India or the Indian government. I want you to re-look at the context.

In that case how do you see Lahore and Agra? Were these events important for peace as envisaged by you?

Indians were happy about the Lahore Agreement, but Pakistan was completely divided over it. The reverse happened in Agra. Pakistan was unified, but Mr Vajpayee and Mr Advani had very different views. According to me, only once in the last 50 years was Kashmir discussed seriously. It was in 1962-63. We were under pressure and Swaran Singh and Z A Bhutto sat across the table. India offered to give some 3,000 square miles, butánot the Kashmir valley. Territorially it was the best bargain Pakistan could have ever got. Kashmir was discussed with a sharp focus only in 1962-63, 1998, and now hopefully it will be discussed in 2004.

How serious is the nuclear threat between India and Pakistan?

It will always remain in the background, all the time. If you are not able to control intractability between the two countries, at some point it can be a real threat. With the nuclear deterrent in mind, Pakistan made a gross miscalculation in Kargil, and India to some lesser extent miscalculated and went on with Operation Parakram. India didn't turn aggressive during Operation Parakram. During Kargil Pakistan didn't because they knew India would hit back. In Pakistan, their conventional military strategy and their nuclear strategy are linked. At the conventional level Pakistan is so inferior to India. India is increasing its strength faster. Pakistanis think they cannot handle an Indian conventional attack without the nuclear shield. Now, whether they will accept defeat or nuclear devastation [in the event of war] is a matter of doctrine study. It's a complex issue.

Is people-to-people contact between India and Pakistan on the right track?

In our case it is possible, but there is no people-to-people contact in Israel and Palestine. Our cultural background is similar. We are so friendly when we visit each other, but that cannot bring peace between India and Pakistan. By a better flow of traffic across the borders peace can't be achieved. It can only play a limited role.

Do you agree that the hawkish Bharatiya Janata Party was more suited to make peace with Pakistan than the Congress?

There are two sides to it. Yes, they can carry more people without being attacked from behind. But on other hand they don't want to make peace. Both Musharraf and Vajpayee would have got more support, but neither would make peace. Desire for peace and ability to bring in support, both are necessary on both sides.

Right now there is a change, but not adequate. There is no definite goal in our minds. Both countries will have to make very painful psychological adjustments. Pakistan will have to accept the LoC provided India treats Kashmir differently compared to other Indian provinces. Kashmir is the most centrally controlled Indian state. No governor of an Indian state is as powerful as the governor of Kashmir. The top level of the army, intelligence, paramilitary services, bureaucracy, and other supportive services [in Kashmir] are 98 per centánon-Kashmiri. Have you heard of a Kashmiri as director general of police or chief secretary? Therefore, India will have to accept genuine autonomy for Kashmir, and Pakistanis should accept the LoC. Then, Pakistanis should tell their people that autonomy for Kashmir is the vindication of their claims and their struggle.

But Kashmir already enjoys more autonomy than any other Indian state...

Many Indians are against more autonomy to Kashmir because they fear it will make Kashmir insecure vis-Ó-vis Pakistan. If autonomy is granted to Kashmir, a different kind of ethos may develop within the valley and India will not be able to hold Kashmir territorially. On the issue of Kashmir there are too many views. One section is such a rigid class which says, 'For the sake of my self-respect there can be no peace with Pakistan.' I am not talking about such people. I am saying that if Pakistan agrees that 'LoC is ground zero for now, future, and forever', then most Indians would agree to grant autonomy to Kashmir.

What about the Kashmiris themselves?

I have no doubt about it that if we give a proper package of autonomy, most of them will live with India.

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