Volatile nuclear rivals begin to talk

The leaders of India and Pakistan met Monday, marking a pragmatic thaw in relations between the two nations.

Less than two years after skating on the edge of nuclear warfare, archrivals India and Pakistan are cautiously shaking hands once again.

Although the issue of Kashmir remains as thorny as ever, the two South Asian powers appear to have decided that they have more to gain from easing tensions than by coming to blows.

A surprise 65-minute meeting Monday between Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in the latter's capital of Islamabad symbolizes a thaw in relations that began almost imperceptibly last year but which diplomats predict will lead to further confidence-building measures.

Coming less than a month after General Musharraf escaped two assassination attempts at home, the meeting suggests India may have decided it is better off with the existing regime next door than with any likely alternative in the hotbed of Islamic extremism. For its part, Pakistan is hoping the economic dividends of eased relations will help stave off the fundamentalists' appeal.

Yet despite the common interest in lowered tensions, the building of relations is more likely to resemble a slow thaw than the kind of spectacular warming that proved disappointing in the past, analysts say.

"This time [Prime Minister] Vajpayee and Musharraf are showing wisdom to adopt steady steps to achieve sustainable peace rather than dashing towards [the] finishing line," says Shamim Akhtar, a professor at the University of Karachi. "The decades-old foes cannot be friends overnight. There is a history of rivalry, mistrust, and bloodshed, and it takes time to forget and forgive."

Indeed, Mr. Vajpayee may have been anxious not to demonstrate too much enthusiasm for renewed contact with the Pakistani leadership, but at the same time a scheduled visit to the Pakistani capital for a regional cooperation meeting left him little alternative, some analysts say,

"For Vajpayee, he was going to be there anyway for a SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) meeting, so he faced a dilemma," says Selig Harrison, director of the Asia Project at the Center for International Policy in Washington. "If he hadn't met Musharraf, it would have conflicted with the role of peace developer he's trying to play, and it wouldn't have played well with a watching world."

Beyond that, the recent attempts on Musharraf's life may have acted as a wakeup call for both sides, others say.

"The assassination attempts probably left the Indians thinking that while [Musharraf] may not be exactly to their liking, he's better than chaos in Pakistan," says Stephen Cohen, a South Asian expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. As for Musharraf, "He may have finally been convinced that what he thought were some of his best friends" - the extremists whose activities have vaulted him to a secure pedestal in the eyes of Washington - "are actually his worst enemies."

When added to stepped-up regional pressures, in particular from China, to address tensions in the area, the stew of elements means conditions are improving for new tension-easing steps on the basic stumbling block of Kashmir.

"The tensions always ease in the winter, when the snows in the mountains prevent a lot of activity, but India wants these efforts to carry over into the spring when things will really count," says Mr. Harrison. "India wants a respite from the attacks by the cross-border Islamic insurgency, and they will be watching for how much Musharraf will rely be willing to do on that."

Pakistan and Indian diplomats are treading very cautiously after latest Musharraf and Vajpayee meeting as their last attempt of "friendship" in Agra in India failed miserably and the two countries witnessed the worst phase of their relationship, especially after suspected Kashmiri militants stormed the Parliament in Delhi in December, 2001.

"Both leaders welcome the recent steps for normalcy of relationship between the two countries and express the hope that the process will continue," the Indian foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha said after the meeting.

New Delhi and Islamabad had suspended air and rail links and withdrawn ambassadors, triggering fears in the international community that the two countries could fight another war. Since then, the international community has been pushing them to negotiate.

Monday's handshake "is just a beginning of a peace bid and they have to cover the long and difficult way to find solution to the dispute of Kashmir. They have to cross hurdles wisely otherwise there is the danger of tripping ... as in the past," says a Western diplomat.

Sources say there has been back-stage diplomacy going on at an official and unofficial level in New Delhi and Islamabad for more than six months to pave the way for meaningful dialogue.

In recent months, relations improved with a resumption of air and railway links, reinstatement of ambassadors, and a cease-fire along the Line of Control that divides the Kashmir valley.

Mr. Vajpayee started his visit to Pakistan by showing his willing to talk with Pakistan on all the issues, including the main issue of Kashmir, which in recent times India has refused to do till "terrorism is curbed."

"These are negotiations about (setting up) the terms and conditions for a sustainable peace process between India and Pakistan," says C. Rajaj Mohan, professor of South Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Indeed, no matter what other motivations India may have, its line in the sand remains stability in Kashmir, analysts say. "Yet India wants a stable Pakistan next door, but none of these other concerns are going to change their basic position on Kashmir, which is that there has to be a termination of Pakistani support for the cross-border insurgency," says Harrison. "That's the minimum national interest that Vajpayee will defend no matter what."

Brookings's Cohen says it may turn out that the US pressured both sides behind the scenes to give this very public and symbolic show of renewed cooperation. "Both sides are probably expecting some reward from the US, perhaps economic, for making this gesture, and they should get it," he says.

At the same time, Harrison says the meeting between the two rivals also fits into the Indian leader's vision, often referred to publicly of late, for a counterweight of cooperation in the region to what he sees as American unilateralist diplomacy.

After siding with the US in its war against terrorism, Musharraf has angered extremists by banning Kashmiri and sectarian militant groups fighting in Indian-administered Kashmir as scores of the militants have been arrested.

Vajpayee, the leader of hard-line ruling party, Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), of India, faces opposition from the extremists on his peace initiative. But Delhi feels the continued losses in Indian-administered Kashmir, that have claimed more than 50,000 lives since 1989.

"By achieving a peace formula both Musharraf and Vajpayee can help each other," says analyst Mohan.

"If the guns are silent in Kashmir, then Vajpayee will benefit in the forthcoming general elections this year. If Vajpayee is ready to talk on Kashmir, then Musharraf will take credit that his peace initiatives have brought India an agreeing to talk on Kashmir," he says.

But the road to peace between the two countries is fragile. Vajpayee and Musharraf both face domestic pressures from the extremists.

"Any solution to Kashmir without the Kashmiris is not acceptable to us," says a militant of the banned Kashmiri group, Harkat-ul Mujahideen. "If the guns are silent in Kashmir then India will again dodge Pakistan. Jihad is the only way to liberate Kashmir where its security forces have been killing innocent Muslims."

The Pakistan-based veteran Kashmiri politician and former prime minister of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Sardar Abdul Qayyum, welcomes the Vajpayee-Musharraf meeting.

"We are very hopeful. If they include Kashmiris in the negotiations then we (Kashmiris) will be able to facilitate the talks between Pakistan and India," says Mr. Qayyum.

For that reason, the Pakistani and Indian diplomats are cautious, and want to proceed toward the peace process in phases.

Diplomatic sources say that following the Musharraf-Vajpayee talks, there will likely be a series of confidence-building steps, including visa relaxations, possible opening of consulates in Karachi and Mumbai, and the re-opening of the Khokhrapar border in the southern Sindh Province, which runs along India's Rajhastan desert and Gujarat state, and bus service from Muzaffarabad (capital city of Pakistan administered Kashmir) to Srinagar.

Diplomats say such confidence building measures will pave way for diplomatic level talks between Pakistan and India before the announcement of formal talks between the political leadership.

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