Olive branch over Kashmir
Following a tumultuous relationship it looks like India and Pakistan are enjoying a honeymoon of sorts. Iffat Idris reports from Islamabad
After a year and a half of deteriorating relations between India and Pakistan, there are signs that the two countries are heading back to normalisation. The news is a welcome relief for their people and for the international community in general. There is also hope that a way may be found to permanently resolve the issue at the heart of their disputes, namely Kashmir.
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Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali, right, greets Senator Samiul Haq from the Pakistani opposition parties alliance at a meeting to discuss Pakistan's policy regarding peace talks with neighbouring India in Islamabad
The "move back from the brink" began in Srinagar last month when Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made a historic visit to the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir. Addressing a large rally, he said India was willing to have talks with Pakistan. Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali wasted little time in seizing the unexpected opportunity offered by Vajpayee. On 28 April he called the Indian leader and invited him to Pakistan for talks. Though the Indians did not accept, the mere fact that such high-level contact took place -- the first in almost two years -- raised hopes of an improvement in relations.
They were not disappointed. On 2 May Prime Minister Vajpayee announced in the Lok Sabha, "It has been decided to appoint a high commissioner to Pakistan and to restore civil aviation links on a reciprocal basis." Diplomatic relations were cut by India in December 2001 after an attack by suspected Kashmiri militants on the Lok Sabha in New Delhi. India blamed Pakistan for sponsoring "cross border terrorism" -- a charge strongly rejected by the Pakistanis. It recalled its high commissioner from Islamabad, and also cut road, rail and air links with Pakistan.
The Pakistan government did not reciprocate but in May 2002, as punishment for a militant attack on an army camp in Jammu, its high commissioner was expelled by the Indians. The cut in diplomatic relations was accompanied by a massive deployment of troops along the Line of Control (LOC) -- the de facto border between India and Pakistan -- and the international border. By May war seemed imminent, averted only by immense diplomatic pressure from the international community -- alarmed at the prospect of conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. The Pakistan government's measures to curb militant activity across the LOC, e.g. banning some prominent separatist groups, mollified the Indians enough to pull their troops back by the end of last year.
War had been averted, but there was no progress on normalisation. A dispute over funding for separatist groups in February this year led both countries recalling their deputy high commissioners. Resolving the major cause of Indo-Pakistani hostility, namely Kashmir, remained an even more distant prospect.
The former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir lies between India and Pakistan and is claimed by both. The first Indo-Pak war at the time of partition ended with each country controlling part of it -- and claiming the rest. Since then there have been another two wars and numerous international and bilateral efforts to resolve it -- to no avail. In 1989 a separatist movement started in Indian-held Kashmir. Though indigenous in origin, Islamabad quickly offered its support. It saw the insurgency as a means to finally secure the remainder of the state.
New Delhi denies that the Kashmir movement has any indigenous roots, and attributes it solely to Pakistani interference. It has long demanded that Pakistan end support for "cross-border terrorism", and after 9/11 backed up those demands with diplomatic and military pressure.
Now that India and Pakistan have restored diplomatic relations, hopes have been raised about talks to resolve the Kashmir dispute, and the difficulty of achieving this should not be underestimated. Firstly both countries must come to terms with a long history of war and hostility, and secondly India continues to insist on Pakistan ending its support for militancy as a prerequisite for talks. India's government has repeatedly expressed the need to create a conducive atmosphere for a sustained dialogue which necessarily requires an end to cross-border terrorism and the dismantling of its infrastructure. Thirdly, both countries have politically weak governments, and it is difficult to see how they will achieve the difficult compromises which are necessary for resolution.
Nonetheless, both Indian and Pakistani leaders are expressing optimism. Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri said, "Pakistan is ready to start the dialogue process to hold meaningful discussions on all outstanding issues between the two countries including that of Jammu and Kashmir." The Pakistani Prime Minister reissued his invitation for talks. Prime Minister Vajpayee, describing the bilateral normalisation as "my third and last effort", said "I am confident I will succeed."
The international community has long been pressing India and Pakistan to normalise their relations and discuss Kashmir at the negotiating table. They will be delighted with the recent upturn on the subcontinent. United States Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is due to visit the region next week. He will be keen to maintain the momentum and secure talks between the two countries. These will almost certainly go ahead, although initially more likely at the senior official level, who will meet to lay the groundwork for a high-level political summit.
It is too early to say if this week's positive developments herald the beginning of the end of the Kashmir dispute and Indo-Pak hostility, although this is certainly the hope of peace-lovers on both sides.