Salman Bashir’s Kashmir Talk:
A Point of Concern
Dr Syed Inayaullah Andrabi
(Foreign Secretary Slaman Bashir, unlike his political bosses, was articulate and professional in his performance before the Press in Delhi . But the important issue is: did he have a brief that departs from the stand of Kashmiris and Pakistanis who view the issue as one of ‘right of self-determination’ not of human rights or any other vague peripheral rights. I am glad that the Kashmiris noticed and are resolute not to allow Pakistan to compromise their right of self-determination. + Usman Khalid +)
Mr Salman Bashir, Foreign Secretary, Government of Pakistan held a press conference in New Delhi at the conclusion of foreign secretary level meeting held between India and Pakistan on 25/02/2010. A little earlier, his Indian counter part, Nirupama Rao also addressed the press, saying we talked about Kashmir but very briefly. Salman Bashir (henceforth SB), later said he disagrees with that, and that Kashmir was discussed at length. We are not going to analyze the results of this secretary level meeting, nor make any judgments about its success or otherwise, the purpose of this brief write-up is to seek the attention of readers towards what seemed to me a sort of contradiction or incoherence in SB’s press briefing. It was not an explicit contradiction, certainly not a contradiction between his utterances, and, therefore, was not easily notable. However, some contradiction, incoherence or inconsistency, whatever you may choose to call it, did definitely exist. It was subtle, and so, to my mind, very serious. This is what I call a point of concern, and its meaning will become clear as we move on.
It should be noted at the outset, that SB’s performance at the press meet was absolutely professional, and highly impressive. He understood very well what he was being asked and answered most appropriately. Particularly to a question from an Indian journalist asking him why Pakistan was not moving bulk of its forces from eastern border to the western given the fact that Pakistan ’s military was now actively engaged on that front, SB gave a reply which to my understanding could not have been more precise, meaningful, polished and diplomatic. (It might be well worth one’s time and effort to look for the transcript of this press briefing for a better appreciation of what I am saying).
This was not a policy statement, so we will not look at it in terms of Pakistan’s official position on Kashmir, our interest is more profound, and concerns much deeper and wider. It is in that sense that we believe President’s speech deserves to be put in the perspective, and accordingly appreciated. By saying what has been mentioned above, the President has caught the bull by horn, and has very succinctly captured the essence of Pakistan ’s commitment to Kashmir .
Now coming to the contradiction referred to above, let us note that whatever SB spoke at the press meet was precisely measured, targeted at an audience with a purpose, as all such press briefings typically are, and his choice of words was very careful. He talked about so many things, and while we can analyze each and every bit separately, we can treat the whole press briefing as one single event aimed at conveying a message, articulating a position, a stand. After all that is the essence of such events. It was heartening to see, and was absolutely clear that the message given out by SB’s press conference was one of Pakistan ’s defiance in face of India ’s bullying. Pakistan was standing its ground, ready to talk about anything as an equal sovereign interlocutor of India . This is what cumulatively was the impact of all that SB said. So far so good, but it is here that one can start looking for the inconsistency I am talking about. As is clear, for this press briefing to have created a single effect, it was absolutely necessary that all the individual utterances of SB should have been in full harmony with each other, which by and large was the case. However, two elements did not seem to cohere with each other, with one of these elements violating the overall spirit of the briefing. Both the points are about Kashmir . Let us briefly explain this now.
First Element: SB made it absolutely clear that Kashmir is the core issue between India and Pakistan , and has been so for the past 62 years. He almost repeated it in different contexts, and in response to different questions, he firmly stood his ground. Now, this was one of the two elements, and it was in complete harmony with the spirit of the briefing.
Second Element: What was the other element? It was what SB said regarding the situation in occupied Kashmir, and Pakistan’s support to the people there who he said were fighting for their ‘rights’. SB stopped short of saying, and that is the crux of the whole matter, ‘right of self-determination’. He deliberately chose, as one would tend to believe, the word ‘rights’ instead of the much used, and, therefore, familiar phrase ‘right of self-determination’. He further elaborated it by saying that people should have the right of free movement from one part of Kashmir to another.
The Contradiction: One could justifiably construe this as Pakistan ’s climb down from its standard position on Kashmir , but that contradicts the overall spirit of SB’s press interaction. Sending a message of defiance, as SB’s press meet sought to do, effectively articulates Pakistan ’s standard position on Kashmir . After all, Kashmir is the barometer where one can read the relative positions of Pakistan and India vis-à-vis each other. So one cannot say this signifies a departure, but certainly, it creates a problem, does not harmonise with the message SB was giving to his hosts and the world at large. That is why I prefer to call it contradiction rather than departure. If the question is simply of the rights, why should Pakistan talk about it? Does Pakistan talk about the rights of the deprived millions in India for whom the Nexalite, Maoist, and Dalit movements claim to be speaking? It defies logic: If Kashmir is the core issue between India and Pakistan , what is the issue there? Fortunately, there is not much room for ‘creativity’ here, as SB himself said, and absolutely rightly, one cannot be dismissive about this issue. This is the title page of the recent post-British south Asian history. Talk of Pakistan , Kashmir will come up, talk of India , you are talking of Kashmir . The point I want to make here is that when Pakistan talks to India about Kashmir (regardless of whether the word ‘core issue’ is mentioned or not), the clock gets automatically reset to 1947, everything becomes manifest, the fact and reality of the Kashmir issue shows up in a crystal clear way, no party or state versions, but the issue as it factually is, becomes absolutely clear. When SB talked about Kashmir as the main issue standing in the way of normalisation of ties between India and Pakistan, he might have uttered a few words, but it meant volumes to any one in his normal senses, whether a genius, a rocket-scientist or not.
It harmonises with the rest of what he said, and creates one single effect. But when he asks his hosts that Kashmiri people should be given their ‘rights’, and includes the right of free travel between two Kashmirs in that, he is indirectly defining the issue, and bringing it to a level where it defies common sense why it should be an issue so central to Indo-Pak relations. Actually, one fails to understand then, why there should be any discord in the first place at all. The discord arises only when Pakistan insists on sovereign equality, a claim that is integrally bound to its position on Kashmir , and cannot sustain if that position is given up. SB’s talk of sovereign equality at the press briefing and an overall position of defiance cannot go hand in hand with his reference to the struggle in Kashmir as a struggle for ‘rights’. The message of defiance or firmness, as SB’s press meet sought to gave, would then lack credibility and also meaning. Not that it will mean any bad thing like surrender, climb down, etc. etc.; it will not mean anything at all.