Arun Swamy: India and Pakistan Search for Common Ground

Date: 11-26-2004

By Arun Swamy
Research Fellow, East-West Center

HONOLULU (Nov. 26) -- The two-day visit to India just concluded by Pakistan's prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, demonstrated how much both sides would like to find common ground in their ongoing talks as well as how difficult it is. The major source of difficulty, as always, was the disputed region of Kashmir. But the sides had difficulty in agreeing how to approach topics that might have allowed them to claim progress, such as a long-awaited arrangement to build a gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan.

Aziz visited India in his capacity as head of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), but the talks formed part of an ongoing "comprehensive dialogue” at various levels of government. Agreed to in January at the summit meeting of the heads of government of the seven SAARC nations, this dialogue process has been proceeding at lower levels of government since the Indian elections in May, which brought in a new government.

The term “comprehensive dialogue” is itself an effort to overcome the chronic hurdle to discussions between the two sides. Historically, while India has pressed for talks on disputes other than Kashmir, arguing that progress in these areas would help to defuse tension between the two, Pakistan has called for a resolution to the Kashmir dispute as the main requirement for progress in other areas. Comprehensive dialogue was therefore intended to indicate that there would be simultaneous discussions of all issues - Kashmir as well as a variety of other concerns that India wished to discuss.

The most important of these issues for India are economic. India wants Pakistan to extend India Most Favored Nation status in accordance with World Trade Organization rules, which both have signed. Pakistan has refused, arguing that the two countries are in a state of war (an allowable ground for refusing MFN status) and that India has imposed hidden trade barriers on Pakistani goods.

Ironically, the proposal to pipe gas from Iran to India through Pakistan is an exception to this condition placed by Pakistan. But it still did not make progress as India insisted that a gas pipeline deal should occur as part of a broader normalization of trade ties. On both sides the pipeline issue has connections to security concerns deriving from the Kashmir conflict. India has long been afraid that a gas pipeline through Pakistan would give Pakistan a stranglehold on Indian energy supplies. For Pakistan, a gas pipeline might help to offset the fears that India could cut off water supplies from rivers flowing through its portion of Kashmir.

The pipeline deal currently being proposed would allow the export of Iranian gas to both India and Pakistan, with most of the gas going to India and Pakistan receiving generous transit fees. Both countries would benefit economically from the agreement, and there is a precedent, in an agreement to share the rivers flowing through Kashmir, to hope that common ground can be found here without a broader peace agreement. But it is bound to be difficult.

Shortly before Aziz’s visit there was a dramatic proposal from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whose control over the military makes him the true power in Pakistan. He proposed thinking of Kashmir as seven distinct regions over which negotiations could proceed separately, and that options for each could include autonomy, placing it under U.N. supervision, or joint-control by India and Pakistan.

From India’s perspective, though, the proposal represented no change in Pakistan’s approach, for two reasons. First, five of the regions identified are under India’s control so that the negotiations would effectively have focused on the Indian side of Kashmir. Second, Musharraf found five regions in Indian Kashmir where Indians find three because he used religion as a criterion to divide regions that Indians, who focus on language, consider to be homogeneous.

India’s refusal to consider religious identity in defining ethnic groups is at the heart of the Kashmir dispute since the dispute goes back to the creation of Pakistan as a home for Indian Muslims. With over 100 million Muslims still in India - very few of them in Kashmir - most Indian observers believe that treating Kashmir as a religious issue would spell disaster for India’s Muslim minority.

The core differences over the long-term future of the Kashmir issue colors even attempts to create confidence-building measures (CBMs). Some progress has been reported in talks on two areas where the countries have disagreed on the precise border. One of them, a glacier in Kashmir, is reputed to be the coldest battlefield in the world. However, no agreements have been announced yet. Another more dramatic CBM, a proposed bus service between the two sides of Kashmir, has stalled on the question of what kinds of passports Kashmiris would be allowed to travel on, a question that cuts to the core of whether Kashmir is a part of India or a disputed territory.

Both before and after Aziz’s visit, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced categorically that India would not countenance any territorial adjustment as part of a final solution on Kashmir. These announcements were accompanied by announcements that India was reducing its troop presence in Kashmir and was planning a major development package for the region. However, it seems clear that these measures are aimed more at winning over Kashmiris in Indian-controlled Kashmir than at Pakistan.

Under these circumstances, the distant hope of a gas pipeline from Iran - which would in any case likely have to wait until U.S. policy toward Iran became clearer - still represents the best hope of finding common ground between the two sides. Discussions on the pipeline and on other trade issues are continuing and represent the best hope for progress as both sides have interests here that are somewhat separate from the Kashmir issue. On the Kashmir issue itself, the two countries remain as far apart as ever.

Arun Swamy can be reached over the weekend at (808) 372-4295 or at the East-West Center starting Monday at (808) 944-7542. He can be emailed at

This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center