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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Manmohan, Zardari, Train, Trade, and Kashmir

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Zardari

There is so much more happening in and around Kashmir these days than curfews and anti-India slogans. Some of these occurrences, if planned, managed and executed with political acumen and administrative imagination, could transform Kashmir for the better. Unfortunately, given the inherent difficulties, this is a scenario which may be unlikely to occur.

Zardari’s latest pronouncements on Kashmir and India, Manmohan Singh’s offer of dialogue and new sops for Kashmir, the AJK trade delegation’s visit to J&K, and the symbolism of the train to Kashmir have one thing in common: they have the potential, especially in combination with each other, to change the political climate in Kashmir.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s half-hearted invitation to Kashmiri separatists to come to the negotiating table at a time ‘to be decided in future’, may not mean much but for the fact that the separatist leadership too, has said that they are willing to talk to the government, though not in response to Dr. Singh’s invitation. While one would welcome Dr. Singh’s offer for talks, one, at the same time, also wonders about the sincerity and statesmanship in it. In other words, shouldn’t the Prime Minister be doing more than merely reciting a speech written by a nondescript speechwriter, especially in a state that has witnessed nothing but violence over the last two months? Yet the offer for dialogue may prove positive in and of itself, under the circumstances.

President Zardari was much more forthcoming in New York, with his non-traditional comments on India, Kashmir and ‘freedom fighters’. Despite the otherwise inflammatory comments made by him in the US, such as branding the Kashmiri militants ‘terrorists’, and claiming that India was important for Pakistan’s growth, he did not (surprisingly) receive much flak from within Pakistan. Had a Pakistani leader made comments such as these a few years ago, he/she would have been virtually lynched by all sections of Pakistani society for being ‘anti-Pakistan’. Not this time. What this demonstrates is the deeper changes taking place in Pakistan, including its desire to make peace with India and to rid itself of extremism. It seems as though Pakistan is learning to be at ease with India. This is, perhaps, an indication of encouraging developments on the subcontinent and bodes well for the future of the region.

The Kashmir Valley’s first train between the Budgam and Islamabad districts was inaugurated by Dr. Singh, even as there was a complete shut down in Srinagar. While the recent political overheating may have distracted attention from this historic event, and robbed it of some well-deserved fanfare, the train to Kashmir undoubtedly represents a new era in the politics and development of the Valley. Once operational, the many more promised trains from Kashmir to other parts of the country may well be seen as tangible evidence of development in a state with an otherwise depressing infrastructure, despite considerable financial investment by the Indian government.

The meetings held between the trade delegation from across the LoC and their counterparts in Srinagar and Jammu produced many encouraging and out-of-the-box plans, which if allowed to progress unhindered, may go a long way toward substantively addressing the Kashmir issue. Delegations from the Pakistan Administered Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, have decided to recommend to their respective governments the implementation of some key measures. These include the formation of a joint business chamber, use of the dual currency of India and Pakistan for trade, and the opening of branches of their premium banks in one another’s regions in order to facilitate trade. Some of these measures are, in fact, only in keeping with those that had recently been under discussion by both the J&K Bank and the PDP. While the JK Bank had already mooted the idea of opening its branches in Pakistan, the PDP had pitched in for the use of dual currency within the state. The symbolic, as well as the concrete, impact of trade between the two sides of the erstwhile Princely State would be enormously beneficial for it, as well as for the region as a whole.

Taken together, each of these four factors would have implications. Firstly, they would impact the pro-azadi movement in the state. The already faltering dissident movement for azadi may now run the risk of being overshadowed by the symbolism and political dynamics of these factors. While they alone would not result in the demise (even temporarily) of the azadi movement, they will, from now on, lessen its sheen somewhat. Secondly, these factors are also likely to overhaul the political discourse in Kashmir, with issues such as trade and economy becoming the mainstay of a new rhetoric. They are similarly likely to set in motion a process conducive for the ‘mainstreaming of the mainstream’ in Kashmir. The mainstream political parties that have been sidelined in the politics of Kashmir for the past few months now have a window of opportunity to return. Ultimately however, the biggest beneficiary of all of this is India-Pakistan relations. There is rapprochement in sight for Indo-Pak relations in general, and Kashmir in particular. A revival of back channel diplomacy between the two sides, equal to that which previously existed during the heyday of Musharraff and Manmohan Singh, is also likely in the months to follow.

Having said this, it is important for New Delhi to keep in mind that economic packages are no substitute for political packages. What J&K needs is an imaginative political package and not economic largesse by Indian taxpayers.
(Happymon Jacob is Assistant Professor at the Department of Strategic and Regional Studies, University of Jammu, J&K)

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