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Panos South Asia hosts its ninth Media Gatekeepers’ retreat at Chateau Jemeppe, Belgium

The ninth Panos South Asia’s annual editors’ retreat was held over two days at the Chateau Jemeppe, Belgium on October 2nd and 3rd. The topic of the deliberations was “No progress beyond Lakshman Rekha in Kashmir”
The discussants  were:

Bharat Bhushan  Editor, Mail Today
Anant Nath   Editor, Caravan Magazine
Siddharth Varadarajan Editor, Strategic Affairs, The Hindu
Surya Gangadharan  International Affairs Editor, CNN-IBN
Om Thanvi   Editor, Jansatta

Shahir Zahine   CEO, Killid Group
Dr Hussain Yasa  Editor, Daily Outlook, Afghanistan
Danish Karokhel  Editor, Pakhwok Afghan News

Azhar Abbas   Executive Director, Geo News
Zahid Hussain   Contributing Editor, Newsline and The Wall Street Journal
Khalid Hameed Farooqi International Correspondent, Jung Group

Kanak Mani Dixit  Editor, Himal Southasian

A S Panneerselvan  Executive Director, Panos South Asia
Sahar Ali   Country Representative, Panos Pakistan

The conference had a two pronged approach: one, the question of Afghanistan casting its shadow over Indo-Pak bilateral relations; and two, focusing on the Indo-Pak relationship in its entirety with specific focus on Kashmir.

The implication for the region following the withdrawal of the US forces followed by ISAF was the first question before the panel of editors. There are two countdowns to the drawing down of forces from Afghanistan. The Obama deadline of July 2011 for the US forces to withdraw and the 2014 deadline for ISAF.  Editors began by discussing the July 2011 deadline and the implications of the drawing down of US troops for Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Some basic questions, which were raised, are:  how real would the withdrawal be?  An answer to this would depend on other developments.  What is the US aim in Afghanistan? Can the US afford a situation where there can be a consolidation of forces in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area which, in some manner or form, can repeat –if not effectively, the events of 9/11?

If the answer is no, then the Americans would need to create a structure to govern Afghanistan which gives them comfort on the key concerns.  Regional peace and the future of Pakistan would hinge on what kind of Afghanistan the Americans leave behind.
Linked to the withdrawal was the question of Indo-Pak relationship and its effect on Kashmir. Panneer posited that the perception in the external affairs ministries of both India and Pakistan was that India is good at conflict management but not conflict resolution - they don’t see value in resolution. This intransigence means there is no progress beyond the lakshman rekha.

In response, Siddharth argued for a separation in internal and external conflicts. When dealing with internal conflicts, the State’s reaction is to crush it with brute force. On Indo-Pak, however, the degree to which the Indian establishment – and even the BJP - came round to supporting Manmohan Singh’s approach was remarkable.

But in his second tenure, Manmohan Singh lost the focus on Kashmir. The Hurriyat want talks but the government wasn’t willing. Omar Abdullah was inaccessible to the people and the party. When Kashmiris started pelting stones, there was a show of sympathy. The delegation was a good move, but why didn’t they talk to the Hurriyat earlier?

Zahid clarified that Pakistan had not pulled back from back-channel talks; they were postponed because of Pakistan’s political situation. In the first press conference, Zardari announced there would be good news on India-Pakistan but Pakistanis felt that India was waiting and watching, and postponing. Then the Mumbai attack took place, and everything got derailed.

As for Musharraf, the idea that his overtures on Kashmir were a solo flight comes from the hardliners. He himself was a hardliner to begin with but he did have the army with him eventually. Saying he was prepared for an out-of-box solution  was a very courageous step for a Pakistani general. Obviously there would be people opposed to that, and it is they who are saying that he did not have the army’s backing.

No communication
In the last two years, with no communication between the two countries, the hardliners have gained ground; positions in Pakistan have hardened. There is a feeling in Pakistan that India is not willing to talk on Kashmir.

Azhar added, I think we’ve gone eight to 10 steps back, not two. We should seriously look into the mindset of the Indian establishment [and] why Musharraf’s offers were not realized.

Move beyond Mumbai
Internally, we understand the Indian position on Mumbai attacks, but we also understand that life doesn’t end at Mumbai. We have to push forward and move beyond [Mumbai].

Bharat asked why, in July, when India wanted to “move forward in incremental ways”, did Pak adopt an all-or-nothing approach? Why was [Shah Mehmood] Qureshi talking again of the plebiscite?

Azhar responded that Pakistan was not insisting on resuming Composite Dialogue immediately. They asked to put things on a timeline, to at least commit to discussing these things eventually, even if India wanted to discuss terrorism first.

When Bharat said nothing was achieved through back channel, Zahid opined this was because Pakistan felt that India was not willing to resume from where things were had been left off.

Who’s in charge?
Siddharth agreed, partially, arguing that Delhi didn’t know who was in charge in Pakistan given all the back-tracking by Zardari and Gillani etc. India’s mistake, he said, was not knowing when to back off. When Pakistan made some arrests in January 2009, India should have reduced pressure. India acted as if Pakistan had not done anything, and there must’ve been a backlash in Pakistan from the hardliners. No-one in India says that the trial has to conclude before things can restart. We need to calibrate – forward movement on the trial, and concurrent movement on other issues.

Azhar felt the onus was on India to make an extra effort. Without Musharraf, and with a weak civilian government [in Pakistan], the overtures must come from India.

Irreconcilable differences?
Afghanistan’s Dr Yasa intervened to share an Afghan proverb: if something becomes too difficult, we say “it has become a Kashmir problem” i.e. unsolvable. He said the situation between Pakistan and India had gone far from resolution. Afghans were being badly affected by the Indo-Pak conflict. The game and counter-game was being played out not just in India and Pakistan, but by India and Pakistan in Afghanistan. The two parties seemed irreconcilable, indirectly or directly defending what their establishments were doing.

Panneer brought up the issue of Baglihar and how international arbitration provided a judgment that put hardliners on both sides in a very difficult position. The solution proposed during bilateral discussions was a much better one, so India and Pakistan must realize that things have to be resolved bilaterally. International arbitration is not helpful to either side.

Way forward:

Both the Indian and Pakistani editors agreed that the only way forward is to restore the spirit of 2004-7, the openness of the first term of United Progressive Alliance government in India and not to dismiss President Mushraff’s initiatives as “solo flight” but as an alternative emerging from a sovereign country; and not to miss to include the legitimate aspirations and expectations of Kashmiris in working out a solution. Afghan editors joined the Indians and the Pakistanis in saying that the proxy war over Afghan should not spill over either in Kashmir or in Baluchistan as these proxy wars always tend to become a Frankenstein Monster which can’t be controlled by the security establishments once it acquires its own momentum. History has borne witness to the debilitating effect of the “strategic assets”-- meant to bleed the other ---has on one’s own society.

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