India's offer of peace talks to Pakistan may be its boldest step in decades to solve the 53-year dispute over the political aspirations of Kashmir, India's only Muslim-dominated state.
Reaction is ranging from the skepticism of militant groups and many Kashmiris, to cautious support from Kashmiri opposition groups and Pakistan's leadership, to applause from the United States and other nations.
"This is the first step. This would be the first serious set of talks, I would argue, since 1963," says Sumit Ganguly, a professor at the Center for Asia Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. "Now, there will be some call for reciprocal agreement. India will press for Pakistan's cutting off of support to insurgents. Pakistan will demand a thinning of Indian forces in Kashmir. Let's see if that happens."
Two years after India and Pakistan fought a mountain war in Kargil over the troubled territory claimed by both nations, the offer comes at the conclusion of India's unusually bloody six-month-long unilateral cease-fire - in which militant activity and killings by Indian security forces actually increased to their highest pace in the 12-year insurgency. The Indian government simultaneously announced an end to the cease-fire and plans to step up operations against militant groups, giving security forces greater latitude to respond to perceived militant threats.
Where talks lead depends on the seriousness of both sides. But movement toward bilateral talks will dramatically affect the political framework and the mood of the Kashmiris. Talks could sideline, and perhaps weaken, Kashmir's political leadership, both within the government and the fractious opposition.
If there is skepticism in Kashmir itself, it is because the Muslim-majority population has heard plenty of promises. In 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, promised to allow Kashmiris a vote on whether to accede to India, or to Pakistan - or to pursue an independent state. To date, no such plebiscite has taken place. Instead, India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir, and held two sets of peace talks, moves that mostly extended their conflict into a proxy war fought by insurgent groups. In the past 12 years, more than 35,000 people have been killed by a combination of militant attacks and security force activities.
In Islamabad, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Inamul Haq said "The chief executive [Gen. Pervez Musharraf] has more than once said that he is ready to meet and hold talks with the Indian leadership anywhere, anytime."
But on the streets of Srinagar, Kashmir's largest city and center of the opposition movement, the mood is far from ebullient.
"It is a double cross. We don't believe anything they say for the last 11 years," says A.R. Malik, speaking from his shoe shop in Lal Chowk, the main shopping district. "We don't need Pakistan. We don't need India. We need total liberation, independence."
Mohammad Amin Bhat, an attorney, is similarly unimpressed. "There have been innumerable talks, in Tashkent, in Simla, and Prime Minister Vajpayee's visit to Lahore [in February '99]. But all these sittings were designed to buy time for Indian presence in Kashmir," he says.
Kashmir's opposition leaders - which under the umbrella All Parties Hurriyat Conference has requested the right to visit Pakistan to talk with militant groups on behalf of Kashmiris - say they welcome talks between India and Pakistan. But at the same time, they fret that excluding representatives of Kashmir would mean failure at bringing peace.
"Inshallah, we are hopeful," says Javed Mir, deputy chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. "This is a good thing to start talks between India and Pakistan. But ... the people of Kashmir have given sacrifices, they have lost lives. They should have part of the solution."
Kashmir's ruling chief minister, Farooq Abdullah, said he was "delighted" by New Delhi's peace offer, adding that "Hurriyat Conference never had any role in the talks. Their chapter is now closed."
Militant groups, which have used this six-month cease-fire to consolidate their position in the lush valley of Kashmir, say they will continue to target Indian armed forces.
"It does not make any difference to us," said Salim Hashmi, spokesman for Kashmir's largest militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen, which initiated its own cease-fire in July 2000 but abandoned it a week later because of internal dissension. "There was never any cease-fire on the ground in Kashmir."
For their part, Indian security forces say the end of the cease-fire will free them up to eliminate militant groups holed up in Kashmir.
"During the cease-fire, they were able to consolidate their positions and find hideouts," says one intelligence officer with the Border Security Force in Srinagar. "Earlier on we were doing only information-based operations. Now we are able to do sanitization operations, if there is only vague information that militants are in an area, we can search it and cordon it, and we will be able to eliminate them."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor