Kashmir Talks Yield No Progress

India and Pakistan sit down over decades-long dispute, as uprising persists in volatile region

INDIA and Pakistan failed to make progress on ending the conflict in Kashmir since the first negotiations on the disputed state's future began three years ago.

The meeting of foreign secretaries in Islamabad took place amid much prodding from Western governments, including the United States, which have expressed concern over the risk of another war between the two countries, both believed to be capable of producing nuclear weapons. The two sides even failed to set a date for future talks.

Kashmir has been the most contentious issue between India and Pakistan, which have fought two wars over it since 1947. Thousands of troops still remain on alert on both sides of the border along the mountainous region of Kashmir.

``There was virtually no progress on Kashmir because the views on both sides are extremely divergent,'' said one senior Pakistani official of the Jan. 1-3 talks. ``We gave our point of view and the Indians gave theirs. Like before, that didn't take us anywhere.''

Relations between the two South Asian neighbors have been tense since the states were divided after independence from Britain in 1947.

Kashmir remains the biggest security threat for the region.

In 1947, the Hindu prince who ruled the state united with the predominantly Hindu India even though a majority of his subjects were Muslims.

After two wars in 1947 and 1965 India now holds two-thirds of the territory and Pakistan one-third.

Pakistan has always supported the liberation of Kashmiris from Indian ``occupation.''

India has consistently accused Pakistan of ``terrorism,'' arming the Kashmiri militants and sending them across the cease-fire line into Indian-held Kashmir.

The Islamabad meeting came after a break of almost 18 months in talks between the two nations and was described by some officials as ``an attempt to break the ice.''

Both Indian Foreign Secretary J. N. Dixit and his Pakistani counterpart, Sheharyar Khan, played down suggestions that the meeting was a complete failure.

During the three-year period of negotiations between the two sides, the Indian government had consistently refused to discuss Kashmir, asserting that the territory was a domestic issue.

But New Delhi has now agreed to discuss the dispute without any preconditions, a shift in policy that diplomats say could reflect increasing international concern over the Kashmir dispute, and India's human rights record and nuclear potential.

Islamabad wants a free and fair ``plebiscite'' or referendum to allow the people of the Muslim-dominated state to decide if they want to remain within India or join Pakistan.

A joint formal statement said that both sides recognized that their views on Kashmir were divergent, but they agreed to consult each other on the question of further talks. But no schedule for a new round of talks was specified.

Mr. Khan told journalists that Pakistan was not prepared to have any more discussions unless India agreed to ease ``repression'' in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and release Kashmiri leaders who have been imprisoned.

``The people of Kashmir should be allowed to breathe and be allowed to put across their point of view,'' Khan said.

Islamabad is demanding an end to the military operation launched by the Indian government four years ago to clamp down on a separatist movement of Muslim fighters.

Pakistan claims that hundreds of suspected separatists have been killed, wounded, or tortured during the military operation.

Mr. Dixit reiterated India's position which is opposed to holding such a plebiscite, or accepting the United Nations resolutions which support that idea.

But despite the differences, he expressed confidence that the agreement between the two sides to further discuss the Kashmir issue, in itself was a positive development.

``Despite the very fundamental differences of opinion we have agreed to find ways to move forward to resolve this problem, to me is progress enough,'' Dixit said.

SENIOR Pakistani officials and Western diplomats who were closely monitoring the talks later said that any further progress now depends on New Delhi's response in the next two or three weeks.

Both governments are faced with groups of strong nationalists who are certain to intensify their criticism of official policy, at the slightest hint of a compromise.

But New Delhi and Islamabad are also under pressure from the international community and donors to make new efforts in bringing peace to the volatile Kashmir region.

The territory under Indian control is receiving increasing attention from international humanitarian groups alleging severe human rights violations by Indian security forces.

Pakistan is also under pressure from donor countries to lower the tensions which would allow it to reduce some of its large defense budget. Almost one-third of its total budget is spent on maintaining a large military force to provide security against the possibility of a conflict with India.

Barring any new surprises, however, India and Pakistan are expected to cling on to their previous positions, Western diplomats and some officials say.

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