A warming trend over Kashmir, but neither side budges

Newly elected Indian government helps soften tone ahead of major meeting with Pakistani officials this August.

Barely a month after getting elected, India's Congress-led government has worked hard to prove that it has some new ideas for dealing with India's nuclear rival, Pakistan.

Solving the dispute in Kashmir - the Himalayan state that both countries have fought three wars to claim - would be a welcome development. Symbolic gestures alone will not bring peace. Yet politicians on both sides agree that the new government is off to a promising start.

"We express satisfaction with the tone of this government," says Munawar Saeed, Pakistan's deputy high commissioner in New Delhi. "When we used to meet earlier, with the previous government, it was very dismissive. We stated our positions, they stated their positions, and then we all left. This time, we have listened patiently and showed more flexibility."

At its height in May 2002, the Kashmir dispute brought India and Pakistan to the brink of nuclear conflict. Troop levels on both sides of the Kashmiri cease-fire line at that time were 1 million men, and terrorist activities inside Indian-controlled Kashmir killed more than 4,000 people in 2002 alone. That death toll dropped dramatically after India's former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee extended a "hand of friendship" and indicated willingness to compromise on Kashmir, which his hard-line nationalist party has always considered an "integral part of India."

Yet despite some initial worries, it appears Mr. Vajpayee's hard-won peace process has survived the transition to the new Congress government.

Already India has held two rounds of talks with Pakistani counterparts last month, addressing everything from hotlines between military commanders and foreign secretaries, notification before nuclear tests, and restoration of full diplomatic missions in New Delhi and Islamabad. Other proposals include the resumption of trade, restoration of bus and train service, and cooperation on deforestation.

After bumping into his Indian counterpart, Natwar Singh, at a conference in Qingdao, China, Pakistan's foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri said, "This is a challenge to the leadership of Pakistan and India, that we resolve the issue [of Kashmir] in a way where there is no humiliation for Pakistan or India. It is a win-win situation for all. I think it is do-able."

Still, tone is one thing; action is another. Analysts here say the most difficult issues are far from resolution.

The most contentious issue is whether to divide the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and if so, how. Pakistan continues to insist that the Kashmir issue can only be settled by holding a referendum where the Kashmiri people themselves decide whether to join Pakistan or India. India, for its part, would prefer to make the current cease-fire line, or Line of Control, into a permanent international border. Already, India has taken inspiration from Israel and constructed a 500-mile-long barbed-wire fence along the Line of Control - making it a de facto border. It's the surest sign that neither country is budging from its stated positions.

"Issues of this nature are not decided by negotiations, they are decided by the equation of power between the two sides," says Ajai Sahni, director of the Institute of Crisis Management, a New Delhi think tank.

This peace process is an illusion, Mr. Sahni says. "This is just an effort to deflect the hard issues at a point where neither side is in a position to propose a solution. There is a hope for both sides that in the future, the chips will somehow fall their way."

Up in Kashmir itself, there are signs that the old warlike ways are still holding sway. Indian security officials in Srinagar, the state capital, say they have discovered a plot by Pakistani militant group Lashkar-i Tayyaba to assassinate a group of Kashmiri separatists called the Hurriyat Conference.

The idea of eliminating the Kashmiri nationalist leadership, says Prem Shankar Jha, a foreign-policy analyst in New Delhi, would be to force Kashmiris into the arms of Pakistan. "They wouldn't have any other place to go," says Mr. Jha. "The point is that Pakistan has not given up its old way, and more blood is going to be shed. To me, this is not acceptable, and the government needs to say this to the Pakistanis."

Still, Jha says, the new government in Delhi may have a brief window to build momentum for peace.

"Ultimately, it comes down to this," Jha says. "We want terrorism to stop, and they want human-rights violations by our military forces to be reduced. But the real issue is this: Will Pakistan accept it if the Kashmir Valley does not want to be a part of Pakistan? That's what the current polls say."

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