Thursday 29 July 2010

The India - Pakistan deadlock - just don't mention the K-word

No matter how blunt David Cameron has been on various subjects during his trip to India, even he knows better than to mention the K-word.

In recent talks between the foreign ministers India and Pakistan, hardly any common ground could be found. There is no real dialogue between the countries due to a clashing of visions over how their relationship should evolve. M J Akbar, the editor of India's Sunday Guardian newspaper, recently described the deadlock in relations as "deader than ever".

And the main reason for this remains Kashmir.

The feeling in many quarters is that the issue of Kashmir cannot be delayed any longer, that it's time for both countries to put their cards on the table.

But as with any unresolved conflict which has lasted over 60 years - the area was a casualty of the post-war Partition - the situation is complicated.

For any progress to be made, there has to be dialogue, real dialogue, not an imposition of ideas. But India is accused of presenting any talks as a concession on behalf of Pakistan, therefore upsetting the balance from the off. Earlier this month, Pakistan's former ambassador to the UK and the US, Dr Maleeha Lodhi compared the approach to Israel's advances towards Palestine.

Another factor in the equation is the Kashmiris themselves. They need to be at the heart of talks.

Labour MP Chris Leslie said in the House of Commons on Tuesday the question of human rights in Indian-administered Kashmir "has caused a lot of concern" and should be taken up with the Indian government.

He said: "There are reports of thousands... of people losing their lives in the conflict, with up to 10,000 people having disappeared since 1990 according to one report."

"There has been a curfew in many parts of Indian-administered Kashmir since June, which means that a large part of the population are unable to leave their homes, with work curtailed, employment not always possible and shops not functioning."

He concluded by saying many people in Kashmir "would eventually like the opportunity for some level of self-determination or a better say in their destiny and governance.".

Obstacles exist on the Pakistani side too, as Dr Maleeha explained: "In Pakistan there are no constituencies, no groups or political parties of any consequence." The country's reaction to the Mumbai killings was testament, for some people, of the continuing dominance of the Pakistan military over the political process.

But maybe Kashmir has also overshadowed underlying issues which need to be resolved between the countries.

First of all - terrorism. As in many parts of the world, it is the threat of terrorism as much as the acts themselves which are creating uncertainty in the area.

Commenting on the situation, British diplomat Sir Hilary Synnott - who was High Commissioner in both countries - said there is "a tremendous amount of accusation and counter-accusations" between India and Pakistan over Afghanistan. "Both countries have interests there and both are thinking 'what are the others up to?'"

Poverty is also a deep-rooted obstacle.

While everyone talks about India's economy growing at 9% per year, this only applies to 20% of India.

M J Akbar said: "The future can only be found if you can eliminate the curse of poverty, it would transform the whole of Asia."

In India the very rich have become even richer and a large number of people have a rising disposable income, but an estimated 500 million people still live in absolute poverty.

In Pakistan, access to water has become restricted. Although many acknowledge internal mis-management, the finger is also, inevitably, pointed at its neighbour. India has been blamed for polluting the water on its route from the Himalayas to Pakistan.

While many urge action and dialogue to solve these issues, others call for patience. Akbar said recently that, as sentiments are still so strong on both sides, it is probably best to maintain the status quo.

Brian Hanrahan, one of the most respected foreign correspondents in BBC News, said a Cold War model of international relations might be appropriate, with a period of non-dialogue eventually leading to a thawing of relations.

Maybe it's for that reason, rather than the risk of upsetting both sides, that David Cameron, who has rushed at every issue he has faced since taking power, did not mention the K-word on his visit to India.