The Kashmir barriers come down

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2007, 12:00am

A settlement of the Kashmir question could spark a new era in China-India-Pakistan relations, heralding the emergence of a triangle of different - yet symbiotic - economies around the Himalayas.

'I sense India and Pakistan will crack the Kashmir problem within six months,' predicted Syed Talat Hussain, one of Pakistan's most popular television presenters and media personalities. As a journalist, his words are spoken with the authority of somebody who has an inside track.

'This will bring down a lot of borders in South Asia,' he said, envisioning a time when peace will enable a deeper economic merging of Pakistan, India and China.

'A Kashmir solution will change mindsets. People are now talking about in one day having breakfast in Delhi, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul.' Hussain was talking about not only physical, but also psychological barriers, coming down.

If this happens, decades of military build-up - in anticipation of open conflict in Kashmir - would become a thing of the past. Energies and funds could then be redirected towards alleviating poverty in this stricken region and integrating economies so that each country could draw on its comparative advantages.

The Pakistani negotiators in talks with India may have found the turning point in this long dispute. That came with the suggestion that Kashmir may become a self-governing region, demilitarised and under the joint management of Pakistan and India.

That proposal was reportedly tabled by Pakistan, and is awaiting India's response. Pakistani Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan, who has been leading the official talks with India, recently described the logic behind a workable road map for Kashmiri sovereignty under joint Pakistan and India management.

First, unprecedented conditions have arisen that allow a softening of positions on sovereignty. Both sides' concentration on security has relaxed due to the absence of the Soviet Union as a regional power and the rise of China as a mutual ally.

Second, officials have realised that past suggestions of redrawing boundaries are unworkable. The existing Line of Control cannot be sensibly redrawn: any attempt at this as a proposed solution would only stimulate a further stand-off.

The conclusion: eliminate the Line of Control altogether, clearing up much of the problem. Sometimes a solution to an intractable situation can be that simple - turning on just a single point.

While such a solution might create new administrative and political problems, a deal like this was unimaginable between the two intractable foes only a short time ago.

But surprising and creative solutions seem to be coming out of the Himalayan plateau these days. Two months ago, Nepal's Maoists joined a coalition government as a mainstream party, unravelling another once-intractable problem. All parties seem to be aware that stability is essential for trans-Himalayan economic development: it is the only formula for alleviating suffering among some of the world's more impoverished areas. Such concern now overrides narrower interests.

Clearly, China's own warming of relations with India seems to be part of the equation. On his visit to India last year, President Hu Jintao set aside past border disputes in the interests of improved economic ties. Similarly, when Mr Hu visited Pakistan, the receptions were marked by an outpouring of admiration unprecedented in Islamabad, irking some ambassadors from western powers.

Overriding all else are economic interests, driven by the mutual need to eliminate poverty through growth.

'Such a solution will create a new phase in Pakistan-India relations,' predicted Mr Khan. 'A new focus on economic and social development will characterise this new phase. It is time to herald a modern era for South Asia, a new direction with efforts placed on reducing poverty.'

Laurence Brahm is a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala Foundation