New tone in India-Pakistan ties

The leaders of the two countries met Sunday in India to talk Kashmir, bus routes, and trade.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The last time President Pervez Musharraf came to India, in July 2001, he was feted by celebrities and given a red-carpet treatment worthy of a king. Yet the former commando completely failed to win concessions on the disputed territory of Kashmir, or to improve relations between India and Pakistan.

This time, the tone of his visit has been much more low-key - lunch with the Indian president here, visit to a Sufi shrine there, and a 70-minute stop at a cricket match, which Pakistan won. Yet Mr. Musharraf might actually achieve something lasting, including a revived discussion of Kashmir and a few solid steps toward normalized economic and political relations between the two nuclear rivals, observers say.

Now the rhetoric of "lasting solutions" has been replaced by less ambitious, but more practical talk of "softer borders." Still, for the time being, the most important point seems to be that people are talking, not shooting.

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"A lot is going to happen from these talks," says C. Rajamohan, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "The story has shifted from something that seemed like Mission Impossible to something where you will see substantive changes in people's lives."

Talking, not fighting

The very fact that Pakistan and India are talking at all is in itself almost miraculous. Just 11 days ago, militants attempted to derail the brand-new bus service between Indian- and Pakistani-administered Kashmir by torching an Indian tourist center in Srinagar and lobbing grenades at a bus full of Kashmiri civilians. Both countries immediately condemned the attack, and the talks continued as scheduled.

Speaking to reporters after a lunch with Indian President A.J.P. Kalam, Musharraf said that talks were going in "the right direction."

The question now is how to get beyond cricket, bus routes, and nice words.

"I really don't see what more India can do, other than open bus routes and allow people to go to their home villages," says Maj. Gen. Ashok Krishna, director of the Amity Institute of Competitive Intelligence, a security think tank in Delhi. "But the militant infrastructure on the Pakistani side of Kashmir has not been dismantled, and there are militants crossing the Line of Control all the time. Until that activity is stopped, what is there to discuss?"

While both the Indians and the Pakistanis have been remarkably quiet about the content of discussions, those close to the Indian government say that India has begun to press Pakistan to accept the so-called Line of Control as a permanent division of Kashmir. Western diplomats here say this is a sensible solution. India and Pakistan have fought three wars against each other (four, if you count the Pakistani incursion of 1999 at the Kashmiri town of Kargil), and neither side is willing to give up territory that was won at significant cost in lives and money.

In the meantime, India has proposed seven "confidence-building measures," including additional bus routes between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir, increased cross-border trade, joint promotion of tourism, and cooperation on environmental issues such as forest management. Sunday the two sides agreed to increase transport links, boost business ties, and explore ways to reduce the military presence in Kashmir.

Indian security analysts say that the Indian government should proceed cautiously with Musharraf, who, after all, was the architect of the Kargil war - a conflagration that followed six months of seemingly successful peace talks in Lahore between Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

"Musharraf has to come to the realization that no Indian government is going to make concessions on the border," says Sumit Ganguly, director of the India Studies program at Indiana University in Bloomington. "India simply cannot afford to make any territorial compromises. With China cozying up with India, and with Pakistan seeing the US getting close as well, these could potentially have an effect of making Musharraf more reasonable" at the negotiating table.

More than bus routes needed

Kashmiri separatist leaders welcome any move that makes life easier for the Kashmiri people. But, they add, bus services do not solve the problem.

"India and Pakistan alone cannot decide the fate of the Kashmiri people," says Yasin Malik, chairman of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, a separatist party. "The bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad is a creative CBM [confidence-building measure]. But it is unfortunate. Both India and Pakistan did not bother to take people of Kashmir into consultation in the process."

"If they had been part of the consultation process, this bus process, they would have celebrated," Mr. Malik adds. "It would have been the biggest celebration in Kashmir. Instead, they feel humiliated. If the Kashmiri people will not be a part of the process, then you are pushing Kashmiri youth toward the militants."

Syed Ali Shah Gillani, a hard-line separatist leader and former head of the Indian branch of Jamaat Islami, a separatist party, agreed that bus routes and trade links won't solve the problem.

"As far as the bus is concerned, people are very happy," says Mr. Gillani. He cites common complaints of Kashmiris of living under Indian occupation, with some 350,000 Indian troops and paramilitary forces in Indian Kashmir. "But until their miseries are stopped, until the Indian Army is withdrawn from Kashmir, until Draconian laws are withdrawn, the freedom struggle will continue," he says.

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