India, Pakistan Take a Big Stride Forward

NEW DELHI – Barely 10 days after launching a landmark bus service connecting the two divided parts of Kashmir, India and Pakistan Monday took a giant stride forward by declaring that the peace process between them is "irreversible" and will be pursued sincerely and purposefully.

This is the cheerful outcome of a three-day hurricane-speed visit to India by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, which was originally proposed as a trip to watch an India-Pakistan cricket match.

New Delhi and Islamabad – and the citizens of India and Pakistan – both made big gains by agreeing to more confidence-building measures and steps "to enhance interaction and cooperation across the LoC [Line of Control in Kashmir], including agreed points for divided families, trade, pilgrimages, and cultural interaction."

But overshadowing all other issues is their commitment to discuss the highly contentious issue of Jammu and Kashmir "in a sincere and purposeful and forward-looking manner for a final settlement." This is a significant departure from the stated positions of the two governments on Kashmir.

They have held just one tentative round of talks on Kashmir, outlining their concerns but reaching no agreement. In public, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has ruled out any redrawing of boundaries. Musharraf has, equally, rejected conversion of the 740-kilometer (460-mile) LoC into a permanent international border. But they have now agreed to discuss the issue with a view to reconciling differences.

With this, Musharraf has succeeded in doing what he has long wanted to do – put the Kashmir issue on the negotiating table as a top priority.

The Indian side, for its part, gained a good deal by highlighting its own concerns: about terrorism sponsored by Pakistan, especially in Indian Kashmir, and taking up other contentious issues along with Kashmir for simultaneous discussion, including trade and economic cooperation. It has also persuaded Musharraf that there cannot be a rigid time frame for resolving the Kashmir issue.

India and Pakistan are now moving, in General Musharraf’s words, "from conflict management to conflict resolution."

This "win-win" deal has generated unprecedented hope in both Pakistan and India. There is optimism that the half century-long hot-cold war between the two now-nuclear rivals can end, leading to a lasting peace.

The India-Pakistan "joint statement" issued at the end of Musharraf’s visit recognizes that a "historic opportunity" has been "created by the improved environment in relations" between India and Pakistan since they broke the ice last January and began a bilateral dialogue. The dialogue has been sustained by "the overwhelming desire of the peoples of the two countries for durable peace" and by civil society initiatives, making the peace process irreversible.

The public mood in both countries today is radically different from that which marked Musharraf’s last visit to India in July 2001, when he held an official summit meeting in Agra with former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

The Agra summit was a disaster. The two governments could not even agree to a joint statement. Mutual suspicions ran high in both countries. There was a wide gap in perception about each other’s sincerity about making peace after the mid-sized military conflict they fought two years earlier at Kargil in Kashmir – as nuclear weapons-states.

Terrorism was growing in India, particularly in Kashmir, as was popular alienation from the Indian state and its use of repression against movements for secession, autonomy, or independence. Neither India nor Pakistan believed it could dissuade the other from using coercion and covert action.

Today, hope is in the air. And both sides are willing to trust and cooperate with each other.

What has changed since Agra? Besides personal chemistry between Musharraf and Indian leaders, a number of developments have occurred.

The most important is the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that decisively altered the status of Pakistan as the principal source of support for the Taliban and Osama bin Laden-style jihadist fundamentalism, to an ally in the fight against terrorism. The United States has exercised a great deal of pressure on Pakistan to dismantle its elaborate covert network of support to Islamic militants in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

No less important was Musharraf’s realization that in post-9/11, it would be impossible to sustain a link between militant Islamic organizations and the state. He thus decided to put Pakistan back on the road to moderation and modernity, which brought him face-to-face with Islamic extremists in the country. He is now a targeted man – the narrow escape in an assassination attempt in December 2003 just shows how close the president came to death’s door.

At the end of 2002, there was also a largely legitimate and fair (although not quite free) election to the legislature of Indian Kashmir. This produced a coalition government, which advocates reconciliation and peace between different political currents.

Meanwhile, the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference, which represents secessionist leaders in Indian Kashmir, itself split. The majority faction welcomes the India-Pakistan peace process, but has a confused attitude toward holding a dialogue with India (but not with Pakistan). This has eroded its credibility.

In addition, as Musharraf himself told editors on Monday, economics has now displaced geopolitics as the determinant of a country’s status and its relations with others in today’s world. India’s recent heightened economic profile has helped underscore the potential benefit for Pakistan through increased cooperation and trade with its neighbor.

Above all, there has been a major change in public opinion in both countries owing to increased people-to-people contacts, resumption of sporting ties suspended for years, and travel across the border by diverse groups of people.

In 2002, as a million soldiers were eyeball-to-eyeball at the border for 10 months, there was virtually no movement of civilians.

Over the past year, by contrast, between 8,000 and 10,000 people from each country have crossed the border to visit relatives, attend conferences, or do plain tourism. There has been an explosion of cultural contacts and collaboration between the two countries’ flourishing commercial film industries. Hundreds of Pakistanis have visited India for medical treatment, whose quality is relatively high, but cost low.

All this has changed mindsets, especially since the dialogue process was formally launched in January 2004, leading to scores of confidence-building measures and enhanced people-to-people interaction.

This constitutes real progress and gives room for hope. But it won’t be easy for India and Pakistan to crack the Kashmir nut. Their leaders will have to try exceptionally hard to reconcile mutual differences and rival claims, so that their contested borders eventually become "irrelevant." Carrying the opposition, especially diehard conservatives, with such a compromise formula will be even tougher.

All this will demand public education and imaginative strategizing, as well as great political skill. But it is worth the effort.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.