A dream waiting for its chance -- by M.J.Akbar Back   Home  

India and Pakistan, now rescued from any self-induced sense of insecurity by their nuclear status, are at a point where their people dearly want to leave the poison of confrontation behind and challenge that poverty-heritage that Benazir Bhutto spoke of. Who could want nuclear destruction when there is so much to live for? There is so much faith in the idea that if only India and Pakistan cooperated they could leap towards prosperity.

RAJIV Gandhi wanted to give Benazir Bhutto a welcome such as no visiting dignitary had ever received in India.

Was this innocence or overconfidence? Some of the starry-eyed even had visions of a handsome Gandhi and a beautiful Bhutto making a perfect pair on the ramparts of Red Fort while they declared peace before captive television cameras and liberated masses while their aides filed applications to Oslo for the next Nobel Peace Prize.

The opening moves between the two had been promising. Rajiv Gandhi had taken the initiative, sent Ronen Sen to prepare the ground, and the two signed an agreement promising no first-attack on each other's nuclear installations. The Soviet Union made this the basis for a message to Benazir that the Soviets were ready to help Pakistan build three nuclear plants if they could get their own quid pro quo, which was inclusion of Najibullah in the Afghan Interim Government following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. But that is another story, or is it? The tentacles of this subcontinent cling to one another across time and space, history and geography. Afghanistan too has become part of the Kashmir story. We are talking of the 1980s, and the Eighties were another world, much more distant from today than the lapse of a mere decade would suggest. For one, so many of the principals are dead. Rajiv Gandhi. Zia-ul Haq. Najibullah. Even the Soviet Union is dead.

There was a debate in Delhi even in the 1980s about whether India should deal with the leader of a military coup, General Zia-ul Haq, or wait for the establishment of a democratic order, which meant inevitably the arrival of Benazir Bhutto. Gen. Zia, who had to hang Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in order to preserve his coup, made more than one effort to open a peace front with India. Like any sensible military man, he had both a deeper knowledge and a consequent respect for the abilities of the enemy. Even when Pakistan lost a few posts on the Siachen glacier under his watch, he did not order expensive (particularly in human terms) retaliation; instead, he dismissed what had been lost as ice and stones.

Gen. Zia's focus was on the lucrative Western front in the Eighties, on the dream war in Afghanistan against the might of Soviet troops, funded by the CIA, which meant hard cash in liquid flow without any questions asked. It was a war that the Soviet Union could never win and Pakistan could never win. If Gen. Zia had a post-Afghan war grand vision then that too lay in the West, of a great alliance of Muslim countries between Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and all the Muslim Central Asian republics that would soon, he had no doubt, prise themselves away from the Soviet empire. He was not wrong about the consequences of a Soviet defeat in Afghanistan but his great alliance was opium smoke. It had no basis in the realities and interests that govern relations between nations.

Zia's India policy had more to do with Punjab than Kashmir. All through his term the Valley was at peace with itself, and kept its undercurrents under control. Punjab was on fire, and Gen. Zia always kept a supply of matchsticks on hand, but under cover.

Out of cover he took the position of a peacenik, claiming that he could not fight on two fronts, and throwing more than one ball (occasionally a cricket ball) towards India for Delhi to pick up.

Rajiv Gandhi was cool to the General, treating Zia's overtures with a disdain that bordered on condescension.

Rajiv did not need to be told what price India and his family had paid for the troubles in the Punjab. The official line was dutiful faith in democracy. But there was an unmentioned element as well. Zia was not "one of us";

Benazir Bhutto was. The Oxbridge factor was of great help to Benazir who maintained sometimes indiscreet channels to Rajiv Gandhi through her years of exile and during her years of struggle against Zia. The Oxbridge types, who wanted to trust Benazir instead of the "unreliable" Zia, were elated when time and circumstance brought her to power through an election. It was too good to be true. Oxbridge had been elected in both countries.

Rajiv Gandhi could separate social circumstance from political behaviour, but he was not immune to the former. He took the first opportunity he got, that of a SAARC summit in Islamabad, to extend the visit into a bilateral. On their first evening in Islamabad, the Gandhis (including Sonia, Priyanka and Rahul) dined alone with the three reigning Bhuttos: Benazir, her mother Nusrat and her husband Asif Zardari. Both told their delegations later that politics was off the menu, and that they had fun. It was utterly believable. There was agreement in that first summit on protection for nuclear installations, and some progress towards a common position on NPT. Rajiv Gandhi suggested that secret negotiations should continue between officials on this: the "invisible" dialogue. More visible would be talks on reduction of conventional arms and Siachen. Rajiv urged free flow of information, travel and popular-cultural exchanges. Benazir on her part stressed that only a control of the arms race between the neighbours could alter the "poverty-heritage." As is evident there was no shortage of good English metaphor. Benazir mentioned Kashmir; Rajiv opted for silence. He realised later that this silence was not playing well back home, particularly on the eve of a general election, which, according to the opinion polls, would result in a sharp setback if not defeat. He stopped over in Pakistan a few months later, on the way back from a Non-Aligned Summit in Belgrade. When asked about Kashmir at a joint press conference, he was vehement that it was an integral part of India. Although the fires burned in Punjab, Rajiv Gandhi did not ignore Kashmir. He attempted a variation of the model that had worked with some success in Assam and Punjab, creating an electoral pact with Dr Farooq Abdullah.

He analysed, correctly, that the decline in the Valley began with the dismissal of Farooq Abdullah's government by Indira Gandhi in 1984. But the answer the two found was no solution. The advantage of the Abdullahs had been that they represented Kashmir against the encroachment into the Valley by the Congress (despite his differences with Sheikh Abdullah Jawaharlal Nehru never allowed the Congress to operate in the state). The raison d'etre of the National Conference was diluted by this alliance. The Congress gained nothing, while the Conference lost all. Simultaneously, the substantial economic progress that the two promised in their joint campaign was nullified by the inertia of the state government and the sabotage of the Central government. The anger that simmered against the accord created a devastating foundation for the future.

When the unholy combination of Delhi and Srinagar once rigged the elections in 1989 to deliver a victory to Farooq Abdullah, a running fever became epidemic. When V.P. Singh became Prime Minister in November 1989 he inherited a Kashmir that made Punjab look manageable. In a few unbelievable weeks the peace of the Valley was gone, not to return till the moment of writing. The first major incident was the kidnapping of his home minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed's daughter; that was how Kashmir welcomed the first Kashmiri home minister of India. The government traded militants for the hostage. Farooq Abdullah resigned. Bullets began to ricochet through the city and the Valley. The Mirwaiz was killed. His funeral became a protest demonstration against India. Police opened fire, killing more than they would admit. V.P. Singh sent Jagmohan as governor, who in turn instituted a harsh regime.

Rajiv Gandhi tried to keep some semblance of the momentum he had created with Benazir Bhutto alive. During a visit to Namibia, where both he and V.P. Singh were present, he introduced the new Prime Minister to Benazir's national security adviser Iqbal Akhund. The message that V.P. Singh repeatedly received from Benazir was that she and implicitly Pakistan had nothing to do with the uprising in Kashmir. She even sent a special emissary, a man who is back in the news, a former high commissioner for Pakistan in Delhi, Abdus Sattar. Both V.P. Singh and his foreign minister Inder Gujral could hardly disguise their cynicism about such assurances. The irony is that Benazir Bhutto's ignorance may have been genuine.

Benazir Bhutto's naiveté may be understandable in retrospect but that hardly makes it more forgivable. Worse, she learnt nothing from the dismissal of her first government, within a year or so of Rajiv's defeat. She thought that she had been removed because of her rapport with Rajiv Gandhi and her Indian manoeuvres. That was a symptom, not a cause. No one in Pakistan's Establishment could have seriously considered her unpatriotic; she had no reason to be. Her problem was her visceral hatred of the Army that had supported the hanging of her father and kept Gen. Zia in power, and her suspicion of the Army as an institution and its senior officers as a permanent enemy. She could not coexist with an Army that had become a major power centre in Pakistan. Gen. Zia had used his 10 years to create political space for the Army; this fitted well with a demographic fact, that a quarter of Pakistan now has some economic interest in the armed forces either immediate or past employment of some member of the family.

She jostled with this powerful force instead of accommodating it. She had neither the party cadre nor sufficient reserves of sustained popular support to take on the Army. She overestimated herself. But when she came to power a second time, again fortuitously, she thought she could appease her tormentors by being holier than thou on India. She became hysterical on Kashmir, using language that would embarrass a jihadi in an effort to mobilise support in an election she would lose to Nawaz Sharif (who kept his cool and advocated better relations with India).

Sitting in Delhi at that time was the sphinx P.V. Narasimha Rao. The visual comparison between a ranting Benazir and a pouting Rao as the two dominated their respective obedient television channels was almost funny. Interestingly, the only time that Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif cooperated was when they tried to unite against the generals. Benazir was having a baby at the time, and enjoying two honeymoons: one with her husband, and a political one with Nawaz Sharif, who even sent flowers to her hospital bed. The generals were not necessarily better equipped intellectually than their civilian competitors, but they had the enormous base of the one stable institution in a country that has not been able to create a reliable polity.

Hindsight provides a better line of vision. When Benazir Bhutto claimed that she had no knowledge of any Pak help to Kashmiri insurgents in 1989 and 1990 she was only providing evidence of her own impotence. What is clear now is that certain elements, across the arc from Kashmir to Afghanistan, decided to follow up the Decade of Punjab with the Decade of Kashmir. The objective situation was right for this. The war in Afghanistan was over, leaving thousands of trained, motivated and well-armed fighters with no place to go for a holy war.

One of the perceived problems of militancy in Kashmir had been the Kashmiri's reluctance to indulge in violence. A gun culture had to be induced into the Valley, leaving the rest to the inevitable fallout of a few years of point and counterpoint between insurgents and India's security forces.

Battles take time. They may also be independent of other impulses. Clearly Nawaz Sharif felt some urge to practice what he had preached during the election campaign that gave him an unprecedented majority. While he moved towards Lahore, the parallel policy begun some years ago found its culmination in Kargil. In a remarkable repetition of what had happened in 1990 Nawaz Sharif sent word to Delhi that he was not behind Kargil, although he did not deny complete knowledge of what was happening. Was Nawaz Sharif being disingenuous? Frankly, it does not matter much now. For those who ran the Kargil sideshow are officially in charge of Pakistan, and they want their own dialogue with India. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is, understandably, a little anxious: a man who has felt cold steel in his back is loathe to leave it exposed a second time. Is there a rational reason for a change of attitude in the Pakistan Army? Sentiment is best left out of calculations; even if it exists, it is too sloppy to hold anything together. Is there a hard and rational reason to expect sincerity? Yes. Why? Does the Pakistan Army accept that its policy has failed in Kashmir?

No. That is not the reason.

Irrespective of what we may feel, Islamabad does not believe that its Kashmir Decade has been a failure. They believe that these 10 years have weakened India economically and psychologically. Nor do the generals believe that they were defeated in Kargil, where we had to conquer to win and they had to survive to declare victory.

It was the denouement that was critical. Bill Clinton has now revealed what was known already, that he forced Islamabad to withdraw its own and auxiliary forces from the hilltops where the battle raged. One thing became clear after Kargil, that was not a solution. India had the power to reverse any tide. Second, the world was not ready to stand by and watch two nuclear powers battle. Suddenly, the meaning of international intervention, which Pakistan has always wanted, changed. America twisted Pakistan's arm because it had clearly initiated hostilities. The world wants a settlement, not a victory. This is the world of the 21st century, not of the 1950s or even the 1980s and 1990s.

Equally, India and Pakistan, now rescued from any self-induced sense of insecurity by their nuclear status, are at a point where their people dearly want to leave the poison of confrontation behind and challenge that poverty-heritage that Benazir Bhutto spoke of. Who could want nuclear destruction when there is so much to live for? There is so much faith in the idea that if only India and Pakistan cooperated they could leap towards prosperity. It is a dream waiting for its chance.

And, of course, the Army and the BJP are in power in Pakistan and India.

This article was published in DailyPioneer, Bangladesh NewsPaper. Author Akbar is the chief editor, Asian Age, India.