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Procrastinate for ever and call it ’Composite Dialogue’

by Jawed Naqvi, 28 October 2008

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Dawn, October 27, 2008

The journey of a wedding ring that would not lose its way

TWO much publicised official visits with a baffling, if opaque, agenda on issues ranging from terrorism to a water dispute took place in Delhi before last week’s meeting between Indian and Pakistani leaders in Beijing. Simultaneously two prominent Kashmiri leaders struggled to sort out their personal lives, one seeking to renew a denied Indian visa for his American-born wife, the other getting engaged to a spouse in Pakistan from behind Indian prison walls.

He is expected to remain lodged in or around there till another election is over in the disputed region, once the main issue between India and Pakistan are resolved.

People may be beginning to fear that Messrs Asif Zardari and Manmohan Singh have conspired to make their bilateral ties so deliberately gradualist, to put it mildly, that it would be impossible for concerned citizens or prying journalists to keep track of progress should there be any.

I think both leaders (in fact, both the systems) are so caught up with their domestic turbulences that they see it as a nuisance to attend to the challenges lurking from across the border.

And I am not just referring here to terror and effete definitions the two are known to employ to foil the other.

Nor is it true that life has become hunky-dory for ordinary people who need to reach out from across the border – journalists, cultural folk, intellectuals, peace activists, NGOs, divided families – the latter suffer the most, if you consider their lining up for visas, waiting for nights on footpaths in rain, winter or scorching heat outside an overworked high commission in Delhi. It must be the same in Islamabad.

It’s appalling that the consulates in Mumbai and Karachi are still not opened despite the promise many years ago by the leadership to do so within weeks. The headlines too focus on Siachen troop withdrawal, even Sir Creek (how it is central to India-Pakistan ties is something I haven’t figured out).

But rarely these days do newspapers get interested in the simple, doable things like making it easy for people to meet. Nothing except cussedness is holding them up.

They say the Shiv Sena would not allow a Pakistani consulate in Mumbai, which could be true. If so, we need a transparent explanation from India. At least they should start the Indian consulate in Karachi till we can get New Delhi to humour Bal Thackeray, if that is what it takes to get on with life in Mumbai.

The talk of reciprocity – that Pakistan will not allow Indian consulate in Karachi till it has one in Mumbai – doesn’t convince anyone. It does, however, make all the sense if you consider that both sides need to keep certain numbers of intelligence personnel (usually the biggest obstacle to good relations) and neither side wishes to be handicapped in the vital number crunch.

Therefore, when they are hesitant to take up something as elementary as opening visa offices, it sounds insincere when they put even larger morsels in their overstretched mouths. Their newfound interest in a joint hunt for terrorists smacks of such an insincerity.

Yet, that was the purpose of the other visit – first by Pakistan’s National
Security Adviser Mahmud Ali Durrani, followed by the foreign ministry’s point man for cooperation in dealing with terrorists. Goodness knows what the two sides discussed. India gave some more “information” on its concerns with Pakistan, but did not provide “evidence” to back up its claim that the ISI helped bomb its mission in Kabul.

Pakistan raised the issue of Indian sleuths from strategically located consulates in Afghanistan giving a headache in as many ways as they know.

Let the two sides carry on with their secret talks if they must, but recent signals suggest that the people on both sides are losing faith.

Frankly, we didn’t need tens of thousands of civilians killed or missing in Kashmir and half a million soldiers stationed there in perpetuity just to start cross-LOC truck services.

The fact is that state repression in Kashmir has not lessened in any way in the life-or-death battle that its people are perpetually engaged in. It’s just that these “things”, these ordeals, seem to have been cynically factored into the stance both sides have taken to push their own version of bilateral dialogue.

And when there is such a disconnect between what the people want and what their governments are willing to deliver, then it ceases to matter after a while whether they are making any progress in the clutch of eight or ten issues that go by the sobriquet of Composite Dialogue.

All that the Kashmiris asked of the Indian prime minister in Srinagar recently was: what happened to your promise of zero tolerance to human rights abuse?

Instead of addressing the burning issue, we were waylaid by other headlines. We were thus hoping to be enlightened by someone about the brouhaha that preceded the sudden visit of Pakistan water commissioner, who looks at the Indus water treaty.

President Zardari had raised the issue with Prime Minister Singh, giving it the priority accorded to issues at the highest level. The problem however pertained to claims that India had illegally siphoned off a specific quantity of water from the Chenab in order to kick-start its Baglihar dam project.

Now, India need not have “stolen” the water had its officials not been asleep at the wheel when there was plenty of water during the monsoons to divert to the Baglihar project without hurting Pakistan’s rights in any way.

It was to meet the Indian prime minister’s deadline to inaugurate the project for TV cameras in an election year that the initial filling of the dam was taken up at breakneck speed.

So now that substantial amount of water – 200,000 acre feet is not an insurmountable amount if it’s stand alone episode had been diverted at a time when Pakistani farmers needed it, what was to be done to compensate for it?

The damage had been done. What now? Did Pakistan want “diya” (blood money) or some other compensation, if so how and what?

A water dispute is usually an extremely serious issue and it mostly pertains to illegal obstruction or diversion of a river or a reservoir. This episode can pass for a contravention by India, though New Delhi denies it but did it really require the intervention of President Zardari with Prime Minister Singh in New York? If anything the overstated case comes across as a distraction from the issue of the rights of the people of Kashmir about which there is a perception in the Valley that not much has been heard from the current government in Pakistan.

The people there feel let down because of the impression that this government does not have the intention to stand up to New Delhi on the vital issue. Ironically, it is Indian intellectuals, including a surprising bevy of editors, that are currently speaking up against repression in the Valley.

Some have even spoken out for Azadi, words not heard that often from Islamabad these days. Of course some of the same intellectuals had once spoken out equally strongly (and equally ineffectively) against the agenda of Muslim extremists to drive out Kashmiri pundits from their homes in the Valley. Not surprisingly the Indian right has declared the intellectuals as traitors.

The silver lining is that JKLF chief Yasin Malik was engaged meanwhile to Mashal Malik, a Pakistani painter who is studying in London. Since Malik is in jail after his arrest in Srinagar last week, it was left to three of his friends in Pakistan to visit Karachi with a ring for the bride.

On the other hand, the last time I spoke to Mirwaiz Umar Farooq he was struggling to get an Indian visa renewed for his wife. He has got a judicial stay against her deportation. That’s the momentary core reality in the epic lore of Kashmir.

Life seems to be deceptively settling into a quiet retreat for yet another brooding winter. The wedding has been indefinitely postponed.