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A breakthrough with minefields ahead

India and Pakistan have taken a historic step toward a more secure future. But plenty of parties, both at home and abroad, will be trying to prevent further progress. Analysis. By Michael Moran.
Indian army soldiers engage in a gunbattle at Chewdara on New Year’s Eve.Mukhtar Khan / AP file

By casting aside the political taboos that prevented genuine dialogue for half a century, the leaders of India and Pakistan on Tuesday opened a door to a more secure future not only for themselves but for the world in general. In taking this step, however, the two men became immediately vulnerable to charges of betrayal or worse from some of their own supporters who have made a career of whipping up nationalist fervor over the future of the divided territory of Kashmir.

As in all such ambitious initiatives, the planned talks on the disputed territory of Kashmir, on nuclear arms and other issues that divide the two nations still could fall prey to events beyond the control of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan’s military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Acts of terrorism, ethnic and religious violence and intense nationalism are part of the landscape in both India and Pakistan. Add to this the invisible hand of al-Qaida, whose leadership, including Osama bin Laden, is thought to be sheltering in the lawless northern reaches of Pakistan, and the true scale of the obstacles to be overcome begin to draw into focus. 

Reason to cheer
Still, few will quibble with Musharraf’s statement Tuesday that “history has been made.” Since the two South Asian powers declared their nuclear status with dueling atomic test detonations in May 1998, their common border became the most likely place on Earth for a devastating nuclear exchange.

Until recently, two very specific demands prevented any real progress on this conflict.

  • Pakistan’s insistence that the future of the Kashmiri territory be decided by a referendum, a position India rejects largely because Kashmir is a Muslim majority region.
  • India's demand that only bilateral negotiations could be held because, as far as New Delhi was concerned, Kashmir was not a matter for international mediation.

Now, this dogma appears to have been cast aside, or at least papered over, clearing the way for substantive talks. But the history of the region will continue to throw up troublesome issues.

Post-colonial trauma

Kashmir, formerly an independent kingdom of British Imperial India, has been disputed since long before Pakistan and India won their independence in 1947. The British plan for partition left up to Kashmir’s ruler, the Maharaja, Hari Singh, the choice of joining the new Indian or Pakistani nation. He sought independence instead, but agreed for protection to be folded into India on condition that Kashmir’s population ultimately be allowed to vote on their future. That vote never took place, and since Kashmir’s majority is Muslim, Pakistan has long asserted that the referendum would have overwhelmingly endorsed accession to its territory.

The Maharaja’s move immediately led to war in 1947, which ended with Kashmir’s territory divided between the two nations along a U.N. supervised “international line of control. Ever since then, through a second war over Kashmir in 1965 and countless marches up to the brink, the two nations armies have stared guns at the ready across this remote, mountainous but breathtakingly beautiful frontier. 

In 1989, Kashmiri separatists began chaffing at India’s heavy handed rule in the province and a simmering insurrection began. Since then, Indian troops and Hindu villages regularly became the targets of attacks, often leading to violent (and, human rights groups say, criminal) retaliation by India’s security forces.

The introduction of nuclear weapons into this mix deeply alarmed the world, for obvious reasons. Politicians on both sides of this border regularly invoked the Indian or Pakistani enemy in terms suggesting that the recapture of all Kashmir was a holy duty. Pakistan’s military, security services and universities are thought by American intelligence officials to be a particular repository for such thinking.

In India, the prime minister’s own party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, includes important factions that are virulently anti-Muslim. One prominent faction leader, K. S. Sudarshan, has demanded that India’s 140 million Muslims embrace what he calls “their Hindu roots.” He also advocates a plan embraced by Hindu nationalist to build a temple to the Hindu god Ram on the site of a mosque in Ayodha that Hindi zealots demolished in 1992, sparking riots that killed 1,200 people.

Could Muslim Pakistan stand by and watch such an event? It is only one of the many questions hanging over the new peace talks.

9/11 and Washington
Indeed, terrorism will pose a constant threat to any dialogue, just as it regularly derails Israeli-Palestinian talks and bedeviled Anglo-Irish efforts at peace. Only three years ago, the two very nearly went to war after terrorists that India alleged had been trained by Pakistani security services infiltrated and attacked India’s parliament building in December 2001. Had American troops not been pouring into Pakistan in preparation for the retaliatory attacks on Afghanistan after the 9/11 bombings, India might well have reverted to war.

The American role, in fact, has been a major boon to moderates pursuing a peaceful dialogue. The 9/11 attacks cast a dim light on Pakistan, which for years had used its ISI security services to nurture ties with Afghanistan’s Taliban regime and radical Islamic movements made welcomed there, including Al Qaida.

After 9/11, the U.S. demanded that Pakistan renounce those ties and provide bases and other assistance to American forces on Pakistani territory.

Following the attack on India’s parliament in December, 2001, American diplomats put further pressure on Musharraf to reign in groups inside Pakistan sympathetic to al Qaida and actively involved in infiltrating guerrillas into the Indian-ruled section of Kashmir. This crack down has been a mixed success, and indeed Islamic militants of various stripes might currently dominate the Pakistani parliament if anything approaching democracy were in force there. But Musharraf has, at least, convinced India of his sincere desire to prevent further terrorist incidents and avert war.

The gradual but unmistakable American tilt away from the blindly pro-Pakistani policies pursued by Washington during the Cold War may have had an even more salutary affect on the conflict. For decades, Washington and India were estranged, primarily because the Soviet Union deftly exploited American involvement in Third World conflicts to case Washington as nothing more than a latter day version of imperial European power Indians fought so hard to throw off. The U.S., meanwhile, curried favor with Pakistani leaders, dictatorial and otherwise, in order to have a convenient base for infiltrating CIA and other fighters into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation forces there.

During the early years of the Clinton administration, however, with the Cold War’s conflicts fading, ties between Washington and New Delhi began to improve, at first in the economic realm driven by a new influx of educated Indian immigrants into the United States.

Pakistan, meanwhile, repeatedly short-circuited its relations with Washington by its pursuit of nuclear weapons in the international black market and through increasingly difficult to ignore evidence of its involvement in terrorist acts against India. Current revelations of the extent of Pakistan's role in supplying Libya with nuclear weapons technology -- and possibly Iran and North Korea, too -- continue to blacken its reputation. The loss of American confidence and U.S. military supplies, in any case, has left Pakistan's armed forces vastly inferior to India's.

Still, U.S. diplomats hope the overall effect of the past several years of history is a moderating effect on all concerned.

“The two largest democracies on Earth are no longer estranged,” as Secretary of State Colin Powell says in an article in the current edition of the journal Foreign Affairs.  “We have since been trying to turn our parallel improvement or relations with India and Pakistan into a triangle of conflict resolution.”

Where the triangle goes from here is the 64,000 megaton question.