India and Pakistan balk at bold Kashmir peace plan

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf this week urged steps to end the bitter dispute.

Within hours of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's dramatic proposal this Monday to demilitarize the disputed region of Kashmir, both India and Pakistan demurred.

Refusing to consider its merits, Indian officials said that the proposal should have been sent through "proper channels." Pakistani leaders, meanwhile, said their president shouldn't have made the offer at all, calling it a "betrayal" of the Kashmir cause.

Ironically, what appeared to be a breakthrough only underscored both countries' inability to resolve even the simplest matters in the 57-year territorial dispute that has sparked three wars and cost tens of thousands of Kashmiri lives.

Observers blame timing, politics, and military power.

Neither the new Congress-led government in Delhi nor Mr. Musharraf's freshly handpicked Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has the political strength to pass any radical proposal through their parliaments.

Also, neither country has the military power to control Kashmir outright. Given that, experts say, negotiation can only bring superficial change.

"This kind of posturing is not intended to further the peace process, but ... obstruct it, and the media inevitably play into the trap by shaking up an international storm over 'new proposals'" says Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute of Conflict Management, a New Delhi think tank. "The idea that negotiations ... can create a different outcome than the facts dictated by the balance of power is ridiculous."

To be sure, there has been some progress from the yearlong series of talks started after India's then-Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee extended his "hand of friendship" to Pakistan last winter. Bus services between the Pakistani city of Lahore and the Indian city of Amritsar have restarted, air links between the two countries have been reopened, and this week, a group of Pakistani pilgrims were allowed to visit Sufi shrines in the Indian section of Kashmir.

At face value, Musharraf's proposals are bold. He suggested that Pakistan would be willing to set aside its demand for a Kashmir vote for self-determination if India would set aside its policy of making the current cease-fire line into a permanent boundary. Instead, he urged both sides to pull back their troops, identify each of the seven regions of Kashmir, and decide their status afterward.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said last month that his country was open to "possible options for a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the issue."

Yet the manner in which Musharraf announced his proposal - in front of editors of Pakistan's major newspapers - is a painful reminder of the general's penchant for thunderstealing publicity, often followed by limited results.

"[Musharraf] is superb at making tactical gestures, but these have little meaning or substance," says Sumit Ganguly, director of the India Studies Program at Indiana University. "Given the latent and understandable distrust of Musharraf in New Delhi, I suspect that Congress [India's ruling party] will proceed with considerable deliberation."

Indeed, Congress has responded coolly. Indian official Navtej Singh Sarna said tartly, "We do not believe that Jammu and Kashmir is a subject on which discussion can be held through the media."

Even Kashmiri separatist parties seemed miffed by Musharraf's proposal, in part because the general never considered a third option between Indian or Pakistani control: independence.

"Unless the people of the state are made party to any negotiated settlement, it will meet the same fate" as previous agreements, said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the Kashmiri separatist coalition, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference.

Back home, Musharraf's proposal has not exactly swept Pakistanis off their feet.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto called Musharraf's plan a "betrayal" of Kashmiris, and the leader Syed Salahuddin - head of Kashmiri militant group Hizbul Mujahideen - rejected Musharraf's call for a debate. "Such a debate will cause a wedge in Pakistan's principled position, which will be a national loss," he said.

The problem now is Musharraf's inability to sell his ideas to the Pakistani public, says Najam Sethi, editor of the Friday Times newspaper in Lahore.

"This is a great proposal" says Mr. Sethi. "But the problem is: Where is the mainstream support for this?"

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