To most of us, who live in a warm country, the term thaw simply refers to the improvement of relations between long term adversaries. But among those who live in the countries of the far north it evokes images of cracking ice sheets; the re-emergence of turbulent brooks from beneath them, and the awakening of all forms of life. .It is this powerful northern imagery that sums up what is taking place between India and Pakistan today.
The gathering momentum of change was reflected in General Musharraf`s statement to the SAFMA Parliamentary delegation that visited Pakistan last month. The president of Pakistan did not only reiterate that the only way to go forward was to grant the maximum possible autonomy to both parts of Kashmir and make the border between them irrelevant. This was, broadly the position that he had articulated in New Delhi and again at a press conference after his return to Islamabad. But on this occasion he went a step further and said that he understood the danger of unleashing religious (ie communal) tensions that prevented Dr Manmohan Singh from contemplating a solution that involved a change of boundaries.
He also placed a sort of time frame on the solution of the Kashmir problem by saying that he believed that it had to happen while he was the president of Pakistan and Dr Manmohan Singh the prime minister of India. This was not only a reiteration of the trust that he placed in the Indian prime minister, but also a warning that he had already gone a long way out on thin ice in his attempt to find a compromise solution for the Kashmir dispute. The only way he could survive was if he continued to move towards the other shore.
Dr Manmohan Singh`s response to Musharraf`s proposals has increased the momentum of change. Reading between the lines, he has indicated that if the present declining trend in the infiltration of militants from across the LoC is maintained through the summer months, India will further reduce the presence of its armed forces in Kashmir and take significant steps towards increasing the autonomy enjoyed by the state. Light is thus visible at last at the end of the tunnel. The next winter could see real peace in Kashmir, a handing over of the residual peace-keeping function to the Kashmir police, and serious steps to bring the Kashmiris who have so far boycotted elections, into the democratic process.
Yet another sign of the rapidly increasing thaw is the official All Party Hurriyat Conference`s decision to go to Pakistan to meet its counterparts. Many in Delhi have been irked by this decision, because the Hurriyat leaders are going without first making an attempt to call upon Dr Manmohan Singh . This does not only compound the breach of protocol they committed in January and again in April when they called upon prime minister Shaukat Aziz and Gen Musharraf in New Delhi but evaded calling upon Dr Singh, but also gives rise to the suspicion that they will be unduly susceptible to anything Pakistan may say to them while they are in POK and Islamabad.
But before jumping to this conclusion, New Delhi will do well to note that the moderates in the Hurriyat are going after having turned down a Pakistan inspired effort to reunite the Geelani and Miwaiz factions of Hurriyat, and in the face of Geelani`s refusal to go with them. Several conclusions can be drawn from this: first, unlike Geelani they are going to talk within the triangular framework for settlement of the Kashmir dispute, that gen. Musharraf and Dr Manmohan Singh have drawn up.
Second, that they have the tacit support of Gen Musharraf for doing so. Had this not been so they would never have found the courage to stand up to the threats with which the ISI has bombarded them for the last three years. Third, that if this is indeed so then Musharraf considers them to be better representatives of the Kashmiri people than Geelani.
The Hurriyat delegates have made no secret of what they want to talk about when they go to POK and Islamabad. They want to ask Salahuddin, the chief of the Hizb-ul-Mujahedin, to give up violence and once again join the peace process, as he almost did in July 2000. They want to tell the other Jihadi leaders what the real conditions are in Kashmir and ask them to desist from their attacks in order to facilitate the return of peace and the withdrawal of the Indian army.
Finally, they want to talk to Kashmiri leaders in POK to frame programmes for joint action and consultation in the future. Above all, by making personal contact with Pakistani leaders and heads of Jihadi organisations they hope to lift the threat of assassination under which they have lived since 2001. Since none of this conflicts with New Delhi`s goals in Kashmir, their visit can only help to take the peace process forward.
The Kashmir dispute has poisoned relations between Pakistan and India for so long that it is almost sacrilegious to make a forecast about where they are likely to go. But Gen. Musharraf and Dr Manmohan Singh`s most recent statements make it possible to hazard a guess as to what a final settlement could look like.
When the peace process is competed Kashmir would be a kind of condominium in which India and Pakistan would continue to remain responsible for the security and external relations of the two parts of Kashmir as they are today, but in all other respects Kashmiris will be able to treat the territory of the two parts of the old state as one. The `soft` borders in Kashmir will not coexist with hard frontiers between Pakistan and India. On the contrary, as Kashmir moves towards a solution, India and Pakistan will continue to move towards soft borders as well. Such an evolution will be in tune with what is happening in most parts of the world, and is envisaged for the whole of SAARC.
* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.