Why A Fresh Face Isn’t Enough to Move India and Pakistan Closer to Peace

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Indian Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna (L) speaks to the media as his Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar (R) watches prior to a meeting in New Delhi on July 27, 2011. (Photo: Prakash Singh - AFP - Getty Images)

The new Pakistani foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, landed in India yesterday for bilateral talks and, not surprisingly, the Indian media have heralded her arrival with intense interest. From a land-owning family with a long history in politics, Khar is decidedly younger and more glamorous than the usual diplomats making the rounds. On her arrival in New Delhi, she immediately struck a chord with  Indians and Pakistanis who dare to hope for an end to the two countries’ six decades of enmity.

“We have learned lessons from history but are not burdened by history,” she said. “We can move forward as good, friendly neighbours who have a stake in each other’s future and who understand the responsibility that both the countries have to the region and within the region.”

It was just the fresh note that one might expect from Khar, who has been foreign minister for exactly one week and is 45 years younger than her counterpart, S.M. Krishna. At 34, she is too young to remember the 1971 war in which Pakistan was defeated by India — a humiliation that continues to feed the Pakistani military’s India obsession — and like many of her generation, she may simply be tired of the hostility and paranoia that pervades the two countries’ relationship. Is this a new start for India-Pakistan relations? Not quite.

Her first meeting in New Delhi was with Syed Ali Geelani, an 81-year-old Kashmiri political leader who is the most prominent and most strident pro-Pakistan voice in the Kashmir Valley. She also met with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and other moderate separatist leaders, who are focused on greater autonomy and reducing the presence of Indian troops. Those brief meetings are a signal that while Khar may be a new face on the diplomatic scene, her position is a familiar one. Khar “assured Syed Geelani that Pakistan’s principled position on Jammu and Kashmir is based on the realization by the Kashmiri people of their right to self determination, which has been assured to them by the UN and the international community,” according to the Pakistani foreign ministry. In other words, Khar is upholding, in the usual language, Pakistan’s position that India submit to some kind of outside intervention to resolve its dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir — a scenario in which India could only lose.

India would prefer to continue the uneasy but relatively peaceful status quo, in which India accepts the Line of Control as the de facto border of Kashmir, neither seeks nor gives up any territory and allows enough cross-border trade and passenger traffic to keep the economy of the Kashmir Valley on its feet. This soft-border solution might not offer closure, satisfying neither those who want self-determination for Kashmir nor those who insist that Kashmir is “an integral part of India,” but it is the closest the two countries have ever come to breaking their impasse. That’s why India wants to focus its diplomatic energy on “confidence-building measures” like a bus service between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir and a longer list of tradeable items. The more economic activity India can encourage in Kashmir, the stronger its position becomes — for Kashmir’s traders and its underemployed youth, the choice between booming India and a fragile Pakistan is an easy one. In the joint statement released this afternoon, cross-border trade and travel were the only items on which any substantive progress were made.

Beyond that, expect more of the same: Pakistan will keeping pressing for intervention, and India will keep avoiding it. In the meantime, the Kashmir Valley is enjoying a respite from three consecutive summers of protests and violent crackdowns. I visited Srinagar in early July and was amazed to see Shalimar Bagh, the city’s grand Mughal gardens, filled with young girls and boys splashing in the fountains, and old men spreading out picnics and card games under the chinar trees. There was no sign of the stone-pelters, and shopkeepers were relieved to be making up some of the losses from last summer’s endless strikes. Then, on July 23, the Valley had its first general strike in many months, a protest called by Geelani after security forces were accused of raping a Kashmiri woman. Maintaining an indefinite status quo is in the interest of both India and Pakistan, but this incident was a reminder that it may never be enough for Kashmir.