Will Musharraf play cricket, or go the Agra way?

Will Musharraf play cricket, or go the Agra way?
by H.K. Dua

The significance of the launch of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus cannot be underestimated even by hard-boiled cynics who tend to scoff at any movement towards peace on the subcontinent.

The flood of emotions that greeted the event certainly justifies the belief that it met a felt-need of the people on both sides of the divide. It makes the point that the people of Kashmir think differently than those who believe in the culture of gun.

The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus should not, however, lead to euphoria and the belief that a solution to the Kashmir question is at the next turn, or both India and Pakistan have decided to forget their quarrels and opted for living forever in peace.

The road to durable peace is hazardous. The two countries have only begun the journey and they have a long way to go before they can ask their troops to return to the barracks. They have to walk along the road step-by-step, possibly taking a few risks, and create enough confidence that neither has to look behind the shoulder.

The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus is just a modest, although an important beginning, which has softened the border a bit for the benefit of the separated families on both sides of the divide, in a way bypassing the question of sovereignty. It will, however, be an error to build more hopes based on the headlines the bus has rightly made.

The next weekend’s talks between Dr Manmohan Singh and President Musharraf – interestingly on the sidelines of the one-dayer at Ferozshah Kotla Grounds – will indicate how determined the two countries are to walk along the peace track in the near future.

The reports emanating from Islamabad make it clear that for President Musharraf Kashmir, more than anything else, is important. Dr Manmohan Singh is ready to discuss Kashmir with his guest, but only as a part of a larger menu. A solution of the Kashmir question hardly seems to be in sight, however.

President Musharraf recently talked about “freedom movement” in Kashmir and reiterated that Pakistan will continue to give moral and political support to it. It remains to be seen whether he will stage another Agra next Sunday as he did four years ago. Such a turn of events could cause a setback to the peace process.

There doesn’t seem to be any change in New Delhi’s position on the Kashmir issue from what Dr Manmohan Singh said in Srinagar last year: That India will not accept another division of Kashmir, nor any change in the boundaries. He has also been making it known that he is ready to discuss other options President Musharraf may like to come forward with during his visit to Delhi, or later.

While the ball is in President Musharraf’s court, he is not known to have passed on new ideas, even tentatively, to give a kick-start to a substantive round of talks or set up a mechanism for sorting out the Kashmir issue.

The territorial questions are most difficult to solve in any part of the world, more so on the subcontinent where emotions can run high. Pakistan’s claim on Kashmir, being proffered in the name of religion, is essentially for getting on the negotiating table territory that it could not through other means.

To India, a division of territory on the basis of religion is out of the question and abhorrent. New Delhi, which has had to fight three wars and a half over Kashmir, is unlikely to go along President Musharraf if he insists on pushing territorial claims.

While the Pakistan President’s emphasis will remain on Kashmir, Indian stress will be on going beyond the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus and other steps to create an atmosphere of greater trust between the two nations which in turn, New Delhi thinks, will create conditions for more meaningful talks on Kashmir.

This is a route which India and China have tried to follow during almost two decades. In the process, India and China have improved their relations to the extent that it is easier now for them to hold more meaningful talks on the border dispute than ever before.

A similar model if accepted by Pakistan can help the two countries reduce mutual distrust and tensions. Whether President Musharraf chooses to play along this line of thought or travel along the Agra road will be known by next Sunday. It all depends on whether he wants to go down as a statesman, or just a politician in uniform.