Rare step forward for Asian rivals

The largest Indian delegation to Pakistan in history is pushing a fast-moving peace initiative.

Just a year after India and Pakistan came dangerously close to an all-out shooting war, the two nuclear rivals seem to be just a table away from peace.

The dramatic change in the Indo-Pakistani relationship can be traced to a speech last spring, when Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee extended a "hand of friendship" to Pakistan.

Tuesday, following a spate of diplomatic moves such as the opening of borders, restoration of bus and rail links, and the exchange of ambassadors, India's largest-ever delegation of parliamentarians is visiting Pakistan to discuss some of the problems that have vexed these two nuclear-armed rivals for more than 50 years.

A shift in momentum

It's a peace initiative that is moving surprisingly fast, particularly when so little has been done to control cross- border terrorist attacks into the Indian-controlled section of Kashmir.

"Compared with a year ago this time, there is a dramatic change, and it's very welcome," says a senior Western diplomat in New Delhi. "But on a strategic level, especially on the issue of cross-border terrorism and the Pakistani Army's links to militant groups, there isn't any change at all. We'll see where it goes."

In the 56-year-old Indo-Pakistani relationship, it's hard to say whether this is the turning point from antipathy to peace. But the momentum has clearly changed.

In the wake of Sept. 11, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has had to end nearly a decade of support for Kashmiri "freedom fighters," whom Washington now calls "terrorists."

And there is a growing realization on both sides of the border that after 14 years of insurgency in Kashmir and repression by Indian authorities, some new ideas and concrete steps are required.

Yet, in the halls of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, where a seminar of Indian and Pakistani parliamentarians is being held, there is an unmistakable sense of euphoria.

Typical is the attitude of Ram Jethmalani, chairman of India's Kashmir Committee, an advisory panel of diplomats, retired military commanders, and academics that shapes India's policy toward the Muslim majority state.

"I don't believe the relationship has ever been better, or at least more propitious toward betterment," says Mr. Jethmalani, who was himself born in what is now the Sindh province of Pakistan. "This is a moment we should grasp, because the opportunity will not come again."

For self-proclaimed optimists like Jethmalani, Sept. 11 created a sort of sea change in the global view on terrorism. In the 1980s, the Americans funded Islamic parties to fight against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan - some of these same groups that turned their eyes toward India when the Soviets left the country in 1989. Today, America has launched an all-out war on these same Islamic parties, many of whom are part of a shadowy terrorist network called Al Qaeda.

"You can't keep blasting General Musharraf every time there is a terrorist attack in Srinagar; there are some things that are not under his control," says Jethmalani, referring to Kashmir's summer capital.

"This will die out the moment the peace process gets moving, because these terrorists will feel socially ostracized. Before, they were heroes."

Yet for some critics of Musharraf, Indians and Pakistanis as well, today's peaceful mood bears an unmistakable sense of déjà vu.

"Vajpayee has been let down by Pakistan twice before," says Dileep Padgaonkar, an Indian participant in the Islamabad talks, and a consulting editor for the Times of India. "The attitude is that 'I took the bus to Lahore in 1999, and was rewarded with Kargil [where Pakistani troops invaded a section of Indian Kashmir]. I invited Musharraf to talks in Agra and was undermined because Musharraf wanted to make Kashmir the only issue.' But he knows this is his last chance. So he extends the hand one more time."

The greatest threat to peace, says Mani Shankar Aiyer, a top Indian politician, is euphoria itself. The hard work of negotiation cannot survive the ups and downs of a relationship, as the two rivals move from forgiveness to betrayal and back again.

"Unless we get a structure for talks that is uninterrupted and uninterruptible, then we're going to get nowhere," says Mr. Aiyer, a former Indian foreign secretary.

"We should follow the example set by the US in Vietnam at the Hotel Majestic in Paris. The first hour should be devoted to abuse, so that our politicians can go home and say: 'I taught those Pakistanis a lesson.' Then the rest of the time will be devoted to the real issues."

Sept. 11 as catalyst

For Pakistani participants, today's peace is a direct - and unintentional - result of Al Qaeda's attacks of Sept. 11.

"Pakistan has had to rethink its support for these fighter groups," says Aiyaz Amir, a participant in the talks here and a prominent columnist critical of the Pakistan Army. "After 9/11 in Pakistan, the old thing was no longer doable in Kashmir."

As for the Kashmiris themselves, there appears to be no option but to wait and watch while India and Pakistan decide their future.

"Everything is different now," says Amanullah Khan, chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, a popular group that seeks Kashmir's independence from both India and Pakistan. "There are politicians who plan on the sentiments of the people, and there is no easier issue than Kashmir to do that. But it is one thing to be sentimental and another to be serious. And one thing we know from history, the Kashmiri people are not going to remain silent."

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