Kashmir - no mere molehill

Working off the chemistry of its leaders, India and Pakistan's summit ends with promise of more talks.

After three days of marathon meetings, lavish banquets, and peevish finger-pointing, the leaders of India and Pakistan have reached only the most basic agreement of all: simply to meet again.

Part homecoming, blind date, and high-stakes poker game, the Agra summit contrasted the polar-opposite negotiating styles of Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Mr. Musharraf is a no-nonsense military man who prefers detailed, point-by-point discussions and decisive actions. Mr. Vajpayee, a life-long parliamentarian, has a penchant for poetry and florid, wide-ranging dialogues that have the effect of wearing down opponents with charm.

But because both men represent the most hawkish elements of their country - the Pakistani Army on one hand, and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party on the other - analysts say that any decision reached in subsequent meetings, however minor, will have a greater chance of sticking.

"The political situation does not allow both countries to make 180-degree turns from their stated positions," says Rifaat Hussein, chairman of the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan. "So this summit simply prepares the ground for them to be able to announce certain initiatives for Kashmir that may contain the seeds for a resolution. The success will be small, but that small success will be irreversible."

Borders to war over

The stumbling block of the troubled northern border state of Jammu and Kashmir, which both countries claim, was also the very issue that brought the two sides together. The summit is the first meeting of the top leaders of India and Pakistan since then-General Musharraf oversaw an attack on the Kashmiri border town of Kargil more than two years ago. Underscoring the troubles in the territory, at least 86 people have been killed during the talks, say reports from the Himalayan region.

According to sources close to the summit participants, Pakistan was unwilling to rein in militant groups based in Pakistan unless India accepted that Kashmir is a disputed state. India, for its part, wouldn't concede that Kashmir was anything but an internal matter, unless Pakistan showed progress on cross-border violence. At press time, Indian and Pakistani representatives were still working out the precise language of a joint statement on the summit.

It was an anticlimax to weeks of raised expectations prompted by both diplomats and the news media. But given the wide differences of views over their chief dispute, the much-coveted state of Jammu and Kashmir, the outcome was not entirely unexpected.

A new start

Indeed, both Pakistani and Indian officials pointedly termed this meeting the first part in a new relationship by the two rival neighbors. In the spirit of that relationship, Musharraf extended an invitation to Vajpayee to visit Pakistan for further talks, and Vajpayee accepted the offer.

But while official spokespersons said the two leaders were having "cordial, frank, and constructive" discussions, sources close to the Pakistani delegation said that the lower-level ministerial meetings were often contentious and frustrating.

Broad outlines reached by Musharraf and Vajpayee on nuclear risk reduction, trade, and cross-border terrorism, these sources say, were often undermined by hawks on both sides. They pushed their own agendas, such as the exchange of a few dozen prisoners of war, and the extradition from Pakistan of the Indian underworld figure, Dawood Ibrahim.

"Hard-liners are undermining the prime minister's and president's agreements," one Pakistani source grumbled. "They have pushed aside Kashmir, which is the reason we are here."

The forces pulling the Indian and Pakistani delegations largely were domestic political issues. Musharraf could not be seen by Pakistani citizens as giving up on Kashmir, a mostly Muslim state in the north of India, which many Pakistanis see as "the unfinished business of partition." Vajpayee, for his part, could not afford to give Kashmir away, thereby undermining the founding notion of India as a secular state that can govern all religions, creeds, and colors.

But while these compulsions would accompany any discussion between these two rival nations, the final straw for the Pakistani delegation appears to have been a television appearance by Indian information minister Sushma Swaraj on Sunday.

In her interview, Mrs. Swaraj listed the issues discussed by Vajpayee and Musharraf, including trade, cross border terrorism, nuclear risk reduction, and reported prisoners of war in Pakistan.

After waiting 10 hours, the Pakistani delegation blasted Swaraj, both for breaking an agreement to not discuss the substance of the meetings with the press, and for the fact that she didn't mention Kashmir, which for Pakistan was the whole point of these talks. Then, on Monday morning, in a televised meeting with top Indian editors, Musharraf himself said, "The main issue is Kashmir. This is what we've killed each other for."

Then noting that no Pakistani leader can remain in power if he doesn't discuss the issue of Kashmir, Musharraf joked, "If India expects me to ignore the issue of Kashmir, then I better buy Neharwali Haveli and live here." (Neharwali Haveli is the ancestral home in Old Delhi that Musharraf left in 1946, as a child of three.)

But the economic and political forces that pushed Musharraf and Vajpayee together in Agra may prove stronger than the forces pulling them apart. Of both leaders, Musharraf faced the most pressure to reach a peace settlement on Kashmir. With an estimated 2 percent economic growth rate, and a faster-growing population, Pakistan is fighting off economic implosion. Few foreign companies are investing in Pakistan, because of international trade sanctions imposed after Pakistan's May 1998 nuclear test and its close ties to radical Islamic terrorist groups based in Pakistan. These same forces of Islamic extremism have also begun to destabilize Pakistan, a nation that long stood as a beacon of modern and moderate Islam.

Yet the costs of the 12-year Kashmir insurgency are felt by both sides. Posting 350,000 troops permanently in Kashmir has put a drain on India's treasury, restraining economic growth to around 6 to 8 percent, in a period when other Asian "tigers" were growing at double-digit rates. In addition, India appears to have reached the conclusion that they have no choice but to deal with Musharraf, who took control of Pakistan in a coup almost two years ago.

"The history of these military rulers is that they stick around for 10 years, and if he's going to be around for 10 years, we might as well do business with him," says Gen. V.R. Raghavan, former chief of the Indian Armed Forces and now director of the Delhi Policy Group, a New Delhi think tank on security issues. "So this is a good time to test out Musharraf. We can say, we have done our cease-fire, let's see you rein in the militant groups."

Musharraf's return to his roots

While the trip was largely a diplomatic one, the story of Musharraf's visit to India also provided a deeply personal step into the contentious 54-year history that occurred since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Immediately after arriving in Delhi on Saturday, Musharraf visited the national memorial to Mohandas Gandhi, the founding father of India who was assassinated by a Hindu zealot in 1948. Later, Musharraf paid a visit to Neharwali Haveli, his ancestral home, and hugged the family's longtime maid, nicknamed Kashmira, presenting her with a gift of a new Pakistani salwar kameez and $100 in cash.

Musharraf and his wife, Begum Sehba Musharraf, also took time between meetings in Agra to visit the famed Taj Mahal. Built by the Mughal emperor Shahjahan in 1653 to commemorate his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the gleaming white marble tomb has become an international symbol of love. The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore called it "a teardrop on the cheek of time."

Like countless tourists and statesmen before him, Musharraf and his wife sat on the "lovers bench" in front of the mausoleum and posed for the cameras. Of course, Musharraf and the Begum were no mere lovebirds, and when they sat for their picture, hundreds of cameras clicked en masse.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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