By Meenakshi Sood*
In 2007 PM Manmohan Singh and General Pervez Musharraf had worked out a draft framework agreement on Kashmir—a nuclear flashpoint that has been the cause of three wars and numerous crises between the two countries—in secret talks that took place through back-channels. The negotiations had reached an advanced level and both countries were discussing signatures and announcements.
It would have changed the script of the bilateral relationship between the nuclear-armed adversaries and made South Asia a more stable region. Due to sensitivity of the subject involved, only a handful knew about the ongoing process. The process was shrouded in secrecy and as a result its details still remain unclear.
The mist is beginning to lift as people directly involved in the process or privy to it have started talking about it. The talks have even been mentioned in leaked cables by Wikileaks. Former Foreign Minister of Pakistan Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s book Neither a Hawk nor a Dove is the first insider’s account of the secret negotiations that took place between 2004-2007 when the two countries came closest to a settlement on the issue that has dogged the bilateral relationship since their independence in 1947.
Why were talks pursued in the earnest then and not before or after? What was the agreement reached between the two countries? Why did the agreement not see the light of day?
A precursor to the talks was the back-channel negotiations that began under Vajpayee in 1999, a year after covert testing of nuclear weapons by the two countries. Vajpayee’s historic trip to Lahore had improved the atmosphere and made it congenial for peace talks. An LOC ceasefire was affected and progress made in talks with all parties involved, including the separatist Hurriyat leaders.
The process was derailed by an incursion by Pakistan army personnel disguised as guerillas into the mountainous area of Kargil; the misadventure was sanctioned and overseen by General Pervez Musharraf, then the Chief of Army Staff. With time General Musharraf’s world view underwent a significant change as geostrategic developments compelled him to take hard decisions.
In the wake of 9/11 and Pakistan’s support of the US ‘war on terror’ he was criticized at home and attempts were made to assassinate him. He recognized the threat posed by extremism and the prevailing understanding was that economic progress could not be made while the country’s attention was diverted over the dispute in Kashmir.
Across the border, India’s distrust of the General who was seen as the main architect of Kargil faded over time and it realized he was a man they could talk to. As both the countries had tested nuclear weapons which had brought about strategic parity, they wanted to focus on economic development. Most importantly, it was easier for the Pakistan Army to accept the initiative as it came from one of their own and from a man they trusted.
The Pakistan Army agreed to play ball despite derailing many attempts before, or since, for peace with India. The issue of Kashmir was seen as an unnecessary diversion sapping precious energy. Between 2004 and 2007 as PM’s envoy J N Dixit and later S K Lambah and Musharraf’s interlocutors Riaz Mohammad Khan and Tariq Aziz held over 200 hours of discussions, during 30 meetings, held in Dubai, Kathmandu and London. September 2007 was being talked about as the speculated time for announcing the agreement.
PM Manmohan Singh was set to visit Pakistan at an opportune time during which an agreement on Sir Creek, a 96-km strip of water, opening into the Arabian Sea, which separates the Indian state of Gujarat from the Sindh province of Pakistan, was to be signed. Key to the agreement was the understanding that there would be no need for ratification by Parliament or a Constitutional amendment.
The agreement has been called by various names- Musharraf’s four points, Manmohan-Musharraf four step formula, and ‘non-paper’ on Kashmir. In essence, it talked of joint management, self governance, free movement of goods and people and demilitarization. A ‘consultative mechanism’ was to be put in place which would comprise elected representatives of the government of Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, as well as officials of the national government of both India and Pakistan.
Its mandate would be to address regional ‘social and economic issues’ of common interest, like tourism, religious pilgrimages, culture and trade. Each of the former princely states’ distinct regions was to receive a measure of autonomy. Since neither India nor Pakistan was willing to compromise on the question of border the agreement reached was to ‘make borders irrelevant’ that would allow free movement of goods and people across the LOC.
Kashmiris were to be given special rights to move and trade freely on both sides of LOC. Demilitarization by both sides was to follow cessation of ‘violence and terrorism’.
But it was not to be. In early march in 2007, General Musharraf fired the chief justice of the highest court in Pakistan which triggered massive protests by lawyers and political activists. His popularity took a nosedive and he reached a ‘point where he couldn’t sell himself’ let alone selling a peace deal with the country’s archenemy.
On the other side of the border, the visit by PM Manmohan Singh kept getting delayed due to electoral compulsions as regional elections were due in certain states. Within a year, General Musharraf was swept out of power and the backchannel was thrown into an abyss of uncertainty.
Things took a turn for the worse when ten heavily-armed Islamist militants stormed the city of Mumbai on 26 November, 2008, and laid siege to the financial capital of India.
Since then the fate of the agreement reached has been in a limbo as India-Pakistan have fallen back to the familiar dynamic of reaction and counter-reaction. The initial hope aroused by PM Modi’s invitation to PM Sharif to attend his swearing-in ceremony has long dissipated.
In his book Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, A S Dulat, former R&AW chief, calls the Manmohan years as the ‘lost decade’, but it is during this time, in 2007 to be precise, that India and Pakistan came closest to affecting a solution to the contentious issue of Kashmir. There are those, on both sides of the border, who believe the framework is not dead and can act as a template for future negotiations.
Given the present atmosphere of animosity the time does not seem ripe for the resumption of any serious efforts towards solving outstanding. However, this episode shows what a little courage and imagination can achieve. The bilateral relations between India and Pakistan have been operating under a dark cloud cover of suspicion so dense that it seems impenetrable.
Every now and then, however, a ray of light pierces through and spreads the warm glow of hope. The secret talks between 2004-2007 were one such episode where bold resolve and courage by leaders held the promise of transforming the relationship.
*Meenakshi Sood is a Research Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. She can be reached at: [email protected]