‘India, Pakistan were close to Kashmir accord’

February 22nd, 2009 - 4:44 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan SinghWashington, Feb 22 (IANS) Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf were close to signing an accord to end the decades-old conflict over Kashmir after three years of secret talks but failed to achieve the vital breakthrough, media reports here said.
The peace initiative is described in an article by investigative journalist Steve Coll. Writing in the New Yorker magazine, Coll writes that the two sides had “come to semicolons” in their negotiations when the effort lost steam, the Washington Post said Sunday.

“The negotiations, which began in 2004, produced the outlines of an accord that would have allowed a gradual demilitarization of the disputed Himalayan province, a flash point in relations between the rivals since 1947.

“The effort stalled in 2007, and the prospects for a settlement were further undermined by deadly terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November,” the Post said, quoting the New Yorker report.

The attempt ultimately failed, not because of substantive differences, according to Coll, but because declining political fortunes left Musharraf without the clout he needed to sell the agreement at home.

Although Musharraf fought for the deal - as did Manmohan Singh - he became so weakened politically that he “couldn’t sell himself”, let alone a surprise peace deal with Pakistan’s longtime rival, Coll notes, quoting senior Pakistani and Indian officials.

Musharraf resigned as president in August 2008.

Coll, a former Washington Post managing editor who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for his book “Ghost Wars”, writes that the resolution of the Kashmir dispute was the cornerstone of a broad agreement that would have represented a “paradigm shift” in relations between India and Pakistan: a moving away from decades of hostility to acceptance and peaceful trade.

The Post reports that under the plan, the Kashmir conflict would have been resolved through the creation of an autonomous region in which local residents could move freely and conduct trade on both sides of the territorial boundary.

Over time, the border would become irrelevant, and declining violence would allow a gradual withdrawal of troops that now face one another across the mountain passes.

“It was huge - I think it would have changed the basic nature of the problem,” the New Yorker article quoted a senior Indian official as saying. “You would have then had the freedom to remake Indo-Pakistani relations.”

According to Coll’s account, the secret negotiations consisted of about two dozen meetings in hotel rooms in various overseas locations.

The sessions revolved around developing a document known as a ‘non-paper’, diplomatic term for a negotiated text that bears no names or signatures and can “serve as a deniable but detailed basis for a deal,” the New Yorker article says.

The US and British governments were aware of the talks and offered low-key support and advice but otherwise elected to let India and Pakistan settle their disputes unaided, Coll says.

“Ultimately, any peace settlement would have to attract support in both countries’ parliaments; if it were seen as a product of American or British meddling, its prospects would be dim,” Coll writes.

The article portrays Musharraf as an enthusiastic supporter of the deal who succeeded in winning converts among Pakistan’s sceptical military leadership. Yet, just as the two sides were beginning to consider how to sell the plan domestically, Musharraf was compelled to seek a delay.

In March 2007, as New Delhi and Islamabad were discussing plans for a historic summit, Musharraf became embroiled in a controversy with his country’s Supreme Court. He eventually sacked the chief justice, triggering weeks of protests by lawyers and activists.

What was thought to be a temporary setback soon proved to be far more serious. “Rather than recovering, the general slipped into a political death spiral,” culminating in his resignation, Coll said.

India-Pakistan ties - and hopes for resuming the peace initiative - began a downward slide after Musharraf left office. In Kashmir, anti-India fighters began an aggressive campaign of public demonstrations and terrorist attacks that seemed designed, Coll writes, to send a message: “Musharraf is gone, but the Kashmir war is alive.”

The Post notes that in recent weeks, there have been signs of a modest thaw in India-Pakistan relations.

Indian and Pakistani spy agencies have been cooperating secretly in India’s investigation of the Nov 26 Mumbai terrorist attacks, sharing highly sensitive intelligence, with the CIA serving as arbiter and mediator, the Post said.

Yet, in the emotionally charged aftermath of the attacks, Pakistan’s new civilian-led government may not find it easy to return to negotiations on Kashmir, even if it wishes to, Coll said.

“The military is completely on board at top levels — with a paradigm shift, to see India as an opportunity, to change domestic attitudes,” a senior Pakistani official was quoted as saying. But, he reportedly added, “the public mood is out of sync.”

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