Musharraf signals change of policy over Kashmir

Click to follow
The Independent Online

President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan has suddenly and unexpectedly thrown the question of Kashmir's future wide open, by proposing India and Pakistan should demilitarise part or all of the disputed region, and consider independence, joint rule or a UN mandate as possible solutions. Gen Musharraf's comments, made to journalists in Pakistan, appear to reflect a dramatic change of policy on the issue.

President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan has suddenly and unexpectedly thrown the question of Kashmir's future wide open, by proposing India and Pakistan should demilitarise part or all of the disputed region, and consider independence, joint rule or a UN mandate as possible solutions. Gen Musharraf's comments, made to journalists in Pakistan, appear to reflect a dramatic change of policy on the issue.

India reacted icily, asking Pakistan to confine its proposals to the ongoing peace talks between the two countries, and refusing to comment on President Musharraf's proposals. In Islamabad, the Pakistani opposition reacted furiously, accusing Gen Musharraf of a "betrayal of the Kashmir cause".

The Kashmir issue has gone quiet in recent months, as the new peace talks between India and Pakistan have moved slowly forward. But, even if the Himalayan peaks on the front line are wreathed in silence for now, the issue which in 2002 brought the world closer to nuclear war than at any time since perhaps the Cuban Missile Crisis remains one of the most dangerous flashpoints on earth, and it remains highly militarised on both sides of the Line of Control.

President Musharraf once said "Kashmir runs in our blood". Before he seized power in a bloodless coup, it was Kashmir that first propelled Gen Musharraf onto the international stage of 1999's incursion by Pakistani forces into Indian-held Kashmir at Kargil, which triggered the first major conflict between India and Pakistan for 28 years.

But with his new proposals, Gen Musharraf appears to have jettisoned years of Pakistani policy on the divided region. "I have never spoken like this before to anyone," he told reporters in Islamabad. "I request you to debate in line with this. It is food for thought."

Last December, President Musharraf said Pakistan was ready to give up its long-standing demand that Kashmir's future should be decided in a referendum that would give Kashmiris the choice of being part of India or Pakistan, but not independence. This time he was quoted as going further, and saying that a solution couldn't be found through a plebiscite.

He also rejected India's preferred option: making the Line of Control, the de facto border between Indian-administered and Pakistan-held Kashmir, into an official, recognised international border and dividing Kashmir between the two countries.

"Take Kashmir in its entirety," Gen Musharraf said. "It has seven regions. Two of the regions are in Pakistan and five are in India. In my view, identify a region, whether it is the whole...or part, demilitarise the region forever and change its status."

He went on to say the new status could be "independence, condominium where there can be a joint control [between India and Pakistan] or there can be UN mandate".

Independence has long been thought to be the favoured solution in the Kashmir Valley, the Muslim-dominated part of Indian-held Kashmir that is at the heart of the dispute. But it is not thought to be so popular in the Hindu-majority plains around Jammu, or the Buddhist region of Ladakh, or in parts of Pakistani-held Kashmir.

India's official reaction yesterday was frosty. "We do not believe that Jammu and Kashmir is a subject on which discussions can be held through the media," said Navtej Sarna, a spokesman for the External Affairs Ministry. "It is one of the subjects in the composite dialogue process [peace talks], so if there are any proposals, suggestions regarding that, that is the forum we expect they will be brought to."

The Indian government was clearly caught unawares by Gen Musharraf's comments. It was several hours before it issued its response yesterday. Indian diplomats accuse the Pakistani leader of playing to the Western gallery with his remarks to the press, but playing a much tougher hand at the real negotiations behind closed doors. Pakistani opposition parties condemned the move from President Musharraf. "It's a U-turn, a roll-back of Pakistan's policy on Kashmir since independence," siad Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, deputy leader of the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA), an alliance of six Islamist parties.

Gen Musharraf's proposals were "not in the interest of Pakistan and the Kashmiris", said Raja Zafarul Haq of the opposition Alliance for the Restoration of Pakistani Democracy.

Whether President Musharraf is entirely in earnest remains to be seen. He did completely reverse Pakistan's policy of support for the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 -- but that was under extraordinary pressure from the US, and Kashmir is an issue dearer to most Pakistanis' hearts.

With three recent failed attempts on his life, Gen Musharraf was already riding the tiger in Pakistan, and after his most recent comments there will be even more groups in Pakistan with an axe to grind against him.

Comments