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New start, new ideas and new faces

May 8, 2003

New hope for resolution of Kashmir issue
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - With both India and Pakistan appearing ready to make a paradigm shift in their policies on Kashmir, proposed talks on the disputed territory can be expected to be more precise and practical than the last abortive round in Agra in India in July 2001, and could result in a change in the region's political map.

The diplomatic endeavors of the United States aside, it is now emerging that the efforts of Prince Karim Aga Khan on behalf of US authorities have contributed in no small way to the breaking of the ice between the two countries in recent weeks.

Prince Karim Aga Khan is the head of the Ismaili community (a branch of the Muslim Shi'ites), and although he lives in Europe he has a strong following in India, Pakistan - including Kashmir - and Afghanistan. Sir Aga Khan, the grandfather of present head of the Ismaili community, was the first president of the All India Muslim League, the party that laid the foundations for Pakistan in 1947.

Recently, Prince Karim visited both India and Pakistan, where he met with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President General Pervez Musharraf. During both meetings he stressed the need for a practical solution on Kashmir, as well as confidence-building measures between the two countries.

It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that soon after the prince's visits, the flurry of exchanges between Delhi and Islamabad has resulted in the countries expressing the desire to resume road, rail and air links, as well as top-level diplomatic ties and softer visa regulations to make it easier for divided families to reunite.

And to talk about Kashmir.

Numerous rounds have failed in the past, and even led to wars, but this time diplomatic sources in Pakistan emphasize that unlike past initiatives, the present efforts will be more closely based on ground realities.

Instead of focusing on United Nations resolutions, water problems, the Simla agreement of 1972 that resulted in the establishment of the Line of Control (LoC) that now separates Indian and Pakistani-administered Kashmir, other proposals will be given serious thought.

One such proposal has been outlined in great detail by a US think tank, the Kashmir Study Group, which functions as an advisory body to the US State Department. It details new Kashmir entities, each with their own government and constitution. The paper suggests that some districts of Kashmir - Doda, Gool Gulabgarh in Udhampur, Poonch and three northern areas of adjacent Rajauri - could be made part of a new autonomous entity or entities acceptable to both India and Pakistan and "the people of Kashmir".

The group claims that its proposal is based on responses from opinion makers, including government officials, in both India and Pakistan. The think tank maintains that the responses were in general positive towards the creation of a Kashmir entity. Former bureaucrats and defense officers were involved in the preparation of the draft proposal, which has been boiled down to three options: Two Kashmiri entities on either side of the LoC, one straddling the LoC, or just one entity on the Indian side of the LoC. In all three options, the proposed entities would have their "own government, constitution and special relationship with India and/or Pakistan".

The proposals, which are now under discussion at different levels in both countries, seek to identify areas in Jammu and Kashmir that would like to be part of the new Kashmiri entities. The identification will be based on religion and "Kashmiriyat" (The concept of a distinct Kashmiri identity ).

Kargil, where a brief war was fought in 1999, is also included in the list of districts, but the paper adds that "though this group, too, has interacted closely with Kashmiris, their desire to join a Kashmiri state cannot be assumed".

On the Pakistan side, the paper presumes that "what is now Azad [Free] Kashmir would opt to have sovereign status more or less equivalent to that of an Eastern Kashmiri state". But the study group, which is more categorical in listing the supposed preferences of the people of Jammu and Kashmir state in India, hesitates to make the same presumptions for Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, stating, "It is presently difficult to gauge the wishes of the people of the region and we have therefore not attempted to distinguish varying regional degrees of desire for a new political dispensation."

The paper, while providing for a single Kashmiri state "with the concurrence of India and Pakistan", states that this would be more difficult than the other option of two Kashmiri entities on either side of the LoC. The new proposal goes into details about the religious, linguistic and territorial profile of the region. It also calls the existing LoC "dysfunctional" and without any inherent logic and proposes territorial exchanges between India and Pakistan "to enhance regional security" involving 11,815 square kilometers of territory.

Apart from these proposals, others are doing the rounds, one of which envisages the creation of a neutral entity that would act as a buffer between the proposed new entities of Kashmir. This theory sees the carving out of a new autonomous entity comprising those areas in Pakistan and India with Ismaili communities to form a community of about 1 million people under an Ismaili administration.

The initial feedback to this idea has apparently been positive, given that in effect most of the needs of these areas are already fulfilled by the Aga Khan Foundation, which is engaged in improving the quality of life of people there through rural development, education, healthcare, micro-credit, financial services, humanitarian assistance and the enhancement of non-governmental organizations. Almost 90 percent of the schools, hospital and services, including civic services, in these regions are operated by the foundation.

Which goes some way to explain Prince Karim Aga Khan's involvement in trying to break the Kashmir impasse for the benefit of all of the people in the Valley.