In a media conference after his swearing-in as the president of Pakistan on September 9, Asif Ali Zardari made just a single statement in relation to India. This, however, has sufficed to cause considerable speculation across South Asia over a subject of crucial importance to peace in the region.
Is democracy in Pakistan, which has acquired a civilian and duly elected president at last, going to make a difference to the most intractable of India-Pakistan disputes?
Zardari promised "good news" on Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan fought three wars since 1947, when both of them were born as independent nations. The feud over Kashmir made it a nuclear flashpoint as well, ever since both acquired the Bomb in 1998. The president was specific about the time frame, while being delightfully vague about other details.
"I am aware of the back-channel dialog," he said, "and in the light of that we intend to take it to Parliament, to the parliamentary committee on Kashmir, and to invite all the political forces which are outside Parliament and inshallah (God willing), before the month is over, before the coming of the Congress government's going into election, we shall have some good news."
Guessing games have been going on ever since. One theory is that Zardari was a reference to an old move by both India and Pakistan to initiate trade across the Line of Control (LoC), or the international border in Kashmir. The move has received a fresh impetus after the recent "Muzaffarabad Chalo (March to Muzaffarabad)" agitation in the Muslim-majority Srinagar Valley of the India-administered State of Jammu and Kashmir. A blockade of the valley by far-right forces in the predominantly Hindu Jammu sparked off the politically symbolic march to the capital of Pakistan-controlled Azad (Free) Kashmir.
Another surmise is that the president was thinking of nothing more than building a "national consensus" on the issue. The forging of such a consensus was no priority to former president and military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who talked of "out-of-the-box thinking" on Kashmir, without bothering to bring it into the the domain of public discussion in Pakistan. Zardari also pledged the revival of a "Kashmir caucus" in the parliament, delayed by the differences over other issues in the pro-democracy camp in the post-Musharraf days.
Neither of these objectives should take eight months - or until India's next general election due in May 2009 - to achieve. The president came up with something more concrete on September 12. He was not going back to the "good news" but, in a newspaper interview, he voiced the hope that two of India-Pakistan disputes - relating to Siachen and Sir Creek would be resolved "very soon." He added, "The settlement of these two issues will create an atmosphere of trust, in which the two countries can move forward on the Kashmir dispute."
India and Pakistan have fought skirmishes over Siachen for nearly 25 years. At an altitude of 20,000 feet, the glacier earned its name as the highest battlefield on earth only after the Kargil war between the two countries in 1999, waged months after they acquired nuclear weapons and amidst threats to hurl them at each other. Both countries have, since then, kept forces on the freezing, formidable heights at costs beyond easy calculation.
The Siachen issue has evaded a solution, though there has been much talk about even the possibility of using the Himalayan glacier to promote India-Pakistan harmony. Advocates of regional amity have been asking for Siachen's conversion into a peace park, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has more than once spoken of it as a "mountain of peace." To save Siachen from the ravages of war, it has been argued, is also to save the snow leopard and the rest of its rare ecological heritage.
On the ground, however, the overall intractability of the Kashmir issue has prevailed, with no separate solution possible for Siachen. Officially, a settlement is being delayed because of difficulties in authenticating the military positions on both sides.
Sir Creek is a 60-mile strip of water, in the marshlands of the Rann of Kutch, on the subcontinent's western coast. Named after a British mediator between the chieftain of Kutch and Sindh, on a border dispute, the area still represents a wedge between India's state of Gujarat and Pakistan's province of Sindh.
The dispute makes an obvious difference to the maritime boundaries of both countries, with implications for territorial waters, exclusive economic zones and continental shelves. More importantly, however, the region is supposed to be rich in oil and gas below the sea bed. According to official sources, the issue has been close to a solution for a long while, with only larger political factors preventing a formal settlement.
Zardari's promise of "good news" has received a surprisingly all-round welcome in Kashmir. Omar Abdullah, president of the National Conference party, a principal political party in India-administered Jammu and Kashmir and a pet aversion of pro-Pakistan forces in the valley, has called for a positive New Delhi response to the new president.
Abdullah said: "An opportunity has knocked at our door again to find a solution to the Kashmir issue and India should not lag behind in any way to help in the resolution of the Kashmir issue." He added that India had missed an earlier opportunity to resolve the Kashmir issue during the presidency of Musharraf. He warned: "If the current opportunity is allowed to pass, history will forever blame the Indian leadership."
Zardari also drew bouquets from those in Jammu and Kashmir who had showered him with brickbats earlier. They roundly denounced him after his suggestion in an interview to an Indian television channel that India and Pakistan should put aside the Kashmir issue to be "resolved by a future generation while they focus on trade and economic ties to improve bilateral relations."
This time round, it was very different. Maulana Abbas Ansari of the militant Hurriyet Conference asked India to respond "positively" to Zardari. Ansari declared: "This is another golden chance for India." He warned: "But we also want to make it clear that the peace, progress and security would continue to elude South Asia until the Kashmir issue was resolved in accordance with the wishes and aspirations of its people."
Another Hurriyet leader, Syed Ali Gilani, a fierce critic of Zardari's February statement, said that, "if the president of Pakistan would help Kashmiris in achieving the goal of right of self-determination, the Kashmiris will welcome it wholeheartedly." He added: "Both India and Pakistan have to withdraw their armed forces from the entire region of Jammu and Kashmir, which includes troop withdrawal from Azad Kashmir. Then people of the state should be given a chance to decide their future."
The only somewhat discordant note was struck by militant ideologue Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed. He issued the dire warning that Pakistan would be in "great trouble" if Zardari made no departure from Musharraf's policies which "derailed the Kashmir issue."
New Delhi has refrained from an official reaction to Zardari's statement thus far. Its view will presumably be made known when Singh and Zardari meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York later this month. The meeting is expected to take place between September 24 and 26. The Indian prime minister is addressing the session on September 26 and Zardari on the previous day.
Within Pakistan, the reaction to watch will be that of former prime minister and present opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. The day after Zardari's promise of "good news," Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) said it would only back a policy "that was acceptable to the Kashmiris." Party leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan stressed: "I would like to make it clear that the PML (N) has a clear policy on Kashmir which backs the Kashmiris' right to self-determination. There has not been a movement of even an inch on this." So far as the peace-loving people of South Asia are concerned, there can be no better news than a Kashmir solution coming as a dividend of Pakistan democracy.