Celia W. Dugger, a former co-bureau chief for The New York Times in South Asia, says that Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s surprise move to ease tensions with Pakistan— like India, a nuclear power— suggests that he is trying to resolve the Kashmir crisis before stepping down next year.
Dugger, the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that Vajpayee is likely to be replaced as prime minister by a much more hawkish successor, and so “I think the only window of opportunity here— and my guess is this is part of India’s calculation— is that the Pakistanis have to know that Vajpayee will be gone in a little over a year.” But she adds that she is not optimistic that an agreement can be reached.
She was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on May 5 and 6, 2003.
Prime Minister Vajpayee surprised everyone last week by restoring both full diplomatic relations and air travel between India and Pakistan after months of tension. Why did this happen now?
It’s hard to say with India and Pakistan what their motivations are. Sometimes they’re rather cryptic. But I think there are several possible reasons. One is that the Indian prime minister is now 78 years old. He’s nearing the end of what will be his final term. There’ll be national elections next year. He’s always wanted to leave a legacy of better relations with Pakistan, and has been foiled in two efforts in which he regarded General Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator of Pakistan, as the betrayer. So he now has somebody in Pakistan he can deal with— the new Pakistan prime minister, Zafarullah Khan Jamali.
Does Jamali have the authority to make a deal?
No. In Pakistan, when it comes to the central foreign policy question, which is Pakistan’s relations with India and the [disputed territory of] Kashmir, the military regime’s views are decisive.
What do you think will come of Vajpayee’s initiative?
Four years in the region disabused me of any facile hopes for peace. There are no real signs that either side had changed its fundamental position on Kashmir. The one slightly hopeful note is that in a statement on Tuesday by Jamali, which must have been approved by General Musharraf, Pakistan has indicated it is willing to discuss nuclear confidence measures with India, but it is still not clear that Pakistan will not continue to hold talks on the nuclear issue hostage to the Kashmir issue.
Why is that important?
Because the world’s greatest fear about India and Pakistan is that there might be a nuclear war between them, and at a minimum, they must take steps to ensure that this does not happen by accident or miscalculation.
I gather that Jamali invited Vajpayee to a meeting in Pakistan after Vajpayee made his announcement, but he politely refused.
Right. He’s not going to make the mistake he made in Agra [at a 2001 India-Pakistan meeting], which is to go without a deal already clinched. I think he’ll only go to Pakistan if they can agree to something substantive.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is making a trip to the region. Will he try to mediate?
Inevitably, the United States ends up playing a role of message-carrier [between the two sides] and, of course, pressuring each to try to be more reasonable.
Is there a short-term solution in sight?
No, and I think the only window of opportunity here— and my guess is this is part of India’s calculation— is that the Pakistanis know that Vajpayee will be gone in a little over a year. They’re likely to end up with somebody more hawkish, meaning Lal Krishna Advani. He is the home minister— who is also the deputy prime minister— and he’s believed to be much more hawkish on Pakistan. So the Vajpayee camp’s hope is probably that Pakistan will seize this opportunity and make some compromises that it wouldn’t otherwise make.
Why does Vajpayee consider Musharraf a betrayer?
There were two betrayals. The first happened in February 1999, when Vajpayee took a very unusual step— he took a [ceremonial] bus [ride] to Lahore, Pakistan, [at the invitation of then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to restart bus service between the two countries]. This was the first visit of an Indian leader to Pakistan in a decade, and it followed the May 1998 nuclear tests both countries conducted and the heightened tensions those tests provoked. There were very public talks with Nawaz Sharif, and they agreed to this elaborate set of things they were going to do to try to bring peace between the two countries. Well, it turned out that, even as they were speaking, General Musharraf [then the army chief of staff] was planning the [May] Kargil invasion of Indian territory in Kashmir, which torpedoed [the peace initiative]. And then there was the October 1999 coup, when the general took over.
Then, in the summer of 2001, there were talks in Agra, where the prime minister of India took a risk again. Musharraf came to India, and the talks were a disaster. The general outtalked Vajpayee; he made a public presentation to a bunch of editors in which he destroyed any chances of there being an agreement with India. So, for the second time, Vajpayee felt he had been personally betrayed by Musharraf. Now there’s newly elected Prime Minister Jamali, so at least there’s somebody else Vajpayee can deal with.
There’s another factor motivating Vajpayee. I think the military strategy had reached the point of diminishing returns— it was getting nowhere.
The current crisis began with the shootings outside the parliament in New Delhi?
Right, that was in December of 2001, and then India began this massive military build-up, and last spring there were 1 million troops along the border.
You were stationed in Delhi then. Did you think there’d be a war there?
I thought it was certainly a very strong possibility. We were all bracing for another spectacular terrorist attack, which, given that the two sides were nose-to-nose, could have led to some kind of military action by India and then, Lord knows what would have happened. But fortunately that didn’t happen, and Armitage came through and got a pledge from General Musharraf to rein in the Kashmiri militant groups that had been tormenting India and Kashmir and which India considered terrorists. That sort of calmed things down for a while. But the terrorism, or as Musharraf would call it, freedom fighting, in Kashmir has not ceased. The real conditions on the ground haven’t fundamentally changed.
Is Kashmir a popular issue with Pakistanis in general?
It is a popular issue, and it’s an issue that gives Pakistanis a sense of national identity— it’s one of the few national issues.
Is Kashmir an issue where India is at fault?
No, it’s a tangled historical conflict, not unlike a custody battle or a bitter divorce, where people are dividing the property and there’s this crown jewel that they can’t figure out what to do with, and that’s Kashmir. This has festered for many years. The assumption by many is that the natural solution would be to turn the so-called Line of Control [that currently separates the two sides], after some minor changes, into the international border. But Pakistan has never felt that was acceptable.
Pakistan wants the whole province of Jammu and Kashmir?
What they really want is the valley, the Kashmir Valley, which is the majority-Muslim part of the state. But India has vowed, and there are certainly no signs of compromise on this, that they will never give up the Kashmir Valley.
What is so important about the Kashmir Valley?
It’s the most beautiful part of Kashmir, and it’s the overwhelmingly Muslim part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan was founded on the idea that it was a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent, that it was an Islamic nation, and so Pakistanis feel that by rights this area of Kashmir that’s contiguous to them should be part of Pakistan.
Did the Iraq war play into Vajpayee’s actions? His initiative came soon after hostilities ended.
My guess is that it didn’t play a very big role. But I think it will undoubtedly play a role in how India presents this situation to the United States— the foreign minister of India [Yashwant Sinha] even made this case himself, suggesting that India had a better case for invading Pakistan than the Americans did for invading Iraq. Indians have long felt that the United States had a double standard on terrorism. The way they saw it, the Pakistanis were sending terrorists to attack them every week, and the Indians had been tremendously restrained. The Indians have demanded that the United States use its influence over General Musharraf to rein in the militants based in Pakistan and not be bought off by the fact that Musharraf is helping with al-Qaeda and so look the other way at the terrorism they believe he directs against India. So they’ll use Iraq as yet another example of what they see as American hypocrisy.
How did India react when, after 9/11, Pakistan became friendlier with the United States?
It was upset.
Because India had a pretty good relationship with Bill Clinton?
The relations were really on the up and up. Pakistan was on the outs. When President Clinton visited India [in March 2000], he stopped for a few hours in Pakistan and devoted most of the speech he delivered to scolding the general. And he spent almost a week traveling all over India effusively praising the country. All of that changed with 9/11, and that was a shock to the Indians. But they tried to use it to their advantage, because suddenly the Americans had a lot of influence with Pakistan whereas they hadn’t before, and they were able to wrest from Pakistan a commitment to crack down on some terrorist groups and reduce militancy. It’s happened some, but it’s crept back.