A day after Rajiv Gandhi signed his peace accord in Punjab with Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, many of us, veterans of the Bhindranwale beat, were in a celebratory mood. After Bluestar, Mrs Gandhi’s assassination and the massacres of the Sikhs, the two sides, we thought, had put the past behind them. Punjab, we believed, was returning to normal years ahead of anybody’s expectations. Until a gentleman called K.P.S. Gill poured cold water over my enthusiasm.
"It is a mistake to think there will be peace so soon," he said. His argument was, Punjab wasn’t ready for peace yet. Bhindranwale’s followers were still strong and Longowal, as a middleground leader, was a lightweight. "You cannot make peace with the weaker player in the rival team just because you may find him more acceptable," he said. The lesson being in war or peace, lock horns with the biggest bully on the other side. The rest will follow, one way or the other.
Settling with the smaller player is self-defeating. Also, never try to make peace when you do not have the opposition more keen on it than you. In this case, vindication for this theory came quickly, violently. Within two months, Longowal was killed. The accord died with him. There was almost another decade’s blood-letting before Punjab was ready for peace.
How does the state of play in Kashmir pass this test? Lone as Longowal, is a scary thought. There are some similarities. He is moderate and, like Longowal’s Punjabiyat, is willing to look at a nationalism of sorts based on Kashmiriyat rather than Islam. But, also, like Longowal, he does not command a real following among those wielding the Kalashnikov and the real power. Nor is he such a strong moral authority yet that the people of the Valley could turn one way or the other at his asking. It will, therefore, be dangerous, for our national interest and Lone himself, to hang the entire peace process on him. If he is the one person most amenable to reason, and most likely to understand our point of view, we should engage him. But any effort to project him as the moderate face of "indigenous" Kashmiri militancy will be dangerous for the peace process, and him. Remember, Delhi’s favourites, in these situations, are seen as Delhi’s stooges. The last thing you want is that one relatively reasonable person on the other side should be so condemned.
There is a difference between managing an insurgency situation on a day-to-day basis and serious conflict resolution. That is why conflict resolution is too serious a matter to be left to the skills of too-smart-by-half intelligence men and North Block dadas. If you are looking for the final solution to a problem as complex as Kashmir you need more patience and perseverance. It won’t happen because you are able to split the militant leadership along Moderate versus Islamist or Kashmiri versus Foreign lines. As developments of the past week, Geelani’s outburst and Dukhtaran-e-Millat’s fundamentalist warnings have already demonstrated, there are obvious dangers in taking a hasty, short-sighted approach to what is a most valuable turning point in the subcontinent’s ossified thinking on Kashmir.
The prime minister’s media managers have been extremely unfair to him because their bunglings have taken the focus away from what is by far the most significant element in his writings. He has agreed to talk to Pakistan, at any level, even the highest level, anywhere, if they dropped the gun. What this means is that he is willing to talk to Musharraf directly on Kashmir, if this ceasefire is to become a serious, genuine long-term reality. There are no preconditions, no pretence of Kashmir being part of a composite dialogue and so on. Surely, this is not something the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) would have approved of and the prime minister has done well to realise, as he did during the bus ride, that he does not need to get his thoughts cleared by country desks in South Block. Just like his visit to Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, this major paradigm shift is not just in foreign policy but also in our intellectual view of Pakistan and the Kashmir problem. The Pakistanis had obviously read these few paras carefully and responded positively though how far they can go will depend as much on their ability to manage fundamentalist pressures on their side as we do ours at home. But since such an opportunity is unlikely to come again in the near future we would do well to recall our own experience of handling such situations in the past.
In Punjab we went wrong when, in a hurry to settle, we signed up peace with the weaker, but less hostile, player who was clearly incapable of keeping his side of the bargain. So, lesson No 1: Don’t be in such a hurry as to make a deal with someone who is too weak to deliver. You will have a moderate condemned as a quisling and destroyed politically, if not physically. In Nagaland, we split the underground on sub-tribal lines and signed up with the dominant Angami-Sema group (Naga Federal Government, NFG), leaving the smaller tribes in the bush. A quarter century later, they have become a menace and we are now talking to them.
Lesson No 2: Therefore, if you want lasting peace, do not split the underground and then expect just one faction to deliver it to you. On the contrary, in Mizoram and, to a large extent even in Assam, where we settled with the mainstream of the movements, underground or overground, peace has been relatively permanent. This is lesson No 3: The most important lesson in the art of conflict resolution, in peace as in war, lock horns with the biggest bully on the other side and hope for the best. Anything else is sheer escapism.
The rest of the equation should be simpler. Who, in this case, is the biggest, the most important, player on the other side who can deliver war or peace? Lone, Geelani, Majid Dar, Salahuddin, Prof Hafiz Sayeed? More likely, it is Musharraf. Asiya Andrabi, the fundamentalist head of Dukhtara-e-Millat is right when she says that Kashmir is not an issue confined to Kashmiris. We keep saying that all the time, that the insurgency is not indigenous, that the Pakistanis control and stage-manage everything, that it is perfectly within their powers to control even the foreign, fundamentalist groups who won’t survive a month without the help of the ISI and the Pakistani Army. That, whether the Hurriyat goes to Pakistan or not, or whatever transpires when its team goes there is of little consequence except for setting up the atmospherics for the big event that should hopefully follow a month or so later.
Whether or not it (a Vajpayee-Musharraf summit) happens, delivers something tangible or ends in anger and bitterness and sets the stage for a very bloody battlefield when the snows melt and the campaign season begins this summer would now, unfortunately, depend almost entirely on the caveats listed earlier. Is your interlocutor capable of delivering his side of the bargain (read can he control the fundamentalists and his own establishment). Second, and more important, while he does have some compulsions, are these strong enough for him to want peace at least as much as you, if not more? These questions will determine the fate of the most audacious, though risky, Indian peace initiative with Pakistan since Simla.
Shekhar Gupta is Editor-in-Chief of The Indian Express. Gupta, 43, has reported and commented extensively on issues ranging from insurgency to defence, strategic and foreign affairs. An expert on Pakistan, he is a recipient of Inlaks Award and G.K. Reddy Award. Gupta has written a monograph called India Redefines Its Role for the International Institute of Strategic Studies, London, where he is a fellow