Ordinary people nudge India, Pakistan toward peace

The two countries have agreed to reestablish a trade panel, the latest in a series of confidence-building steps.

Indian and Pakistani troops are still arrayed against each other along the Siachen glacier in Kashmir. But far from the mountains, in the corridors of power in Delhi and Islamabad, a steady thawing of relations has moved the nuclear rivals from the brink of war three years ago to the best chances for peace in years, say analysts.

A series of confidence-building measures since the peace process began 20 months ago has made South Asia a safer place. In August, both sides acknowledged that the region was no longer a "nuclear flashpoint." Talks last month led to an agreement on pre-notification of ballistic missile tests. Tuesday, the foreign ministers from both countries agreed to reestablish a panel to promote economic ties between the two countries.

"Both sides have tried all alternatives - ranging from ignoring the other side (India), to the use of force (Pakistan), to the threat of the use of force (India again)," says Stephen Cohen, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Now both sides have run out of options other than to sit across the table and talk."

With most of the easy concessions made, the test will be whether compromises can be found on the truly difficult issues, including the disputed territory of Kashmir. While a solution has eluded the two countries for 58 years, observers see some reasons to be cautiously optimistic, including a decline in militant activity. It's also widely believed that the overwhelming desire of the people of both countries for peace is making leaders more flexible.

"Never before have common people played such an active role in improving relations. In earlier times, only governments and intelligentsia were principal actors," says Mubashir Hasan, a Pakistani expert on the peace process.

Building on the goodwill generated by new bus service linking Muzaffarabad- Srinagar and Delhi-Lahore, a bus connecting Lahore-Amritsar will be launched next month. Visa protocols are also being relaxed on both sides for pilgrims and businessmen.

"People are tired of conflict and hatred," says Dr. Devi Shetty, a surgeon in Bangalore. He fondly reminisces how Noor Fathima, a 2-year-old girl from Lahore who traveled to India in 2003 for surgery, captured the hearts of millions rooting for her recovery. Dr. Shetty has since treated 250 Pakistani children at his hospital, and is working on building a children's hospital in Pakistan. Visa relaxations will ensure more kids can now cross the border for treatment.

The warming trend began as Pakistan shifted its orientation and cracked down on militant Islamic groups following Sept. 11, 2001. Past peace efforts have stalled over Indian concerns that Islamabad was not doing enough to curb attacks within India by Pakistani militants.

"Pakistan has been reluctant to give up what India has considered their only trump card, the militant groups fighting in Kashmir. In the past few years, however, Pakistan has inched towards reducing support for militants," says Radha Kumar, a professor at Jamia Milia University in New Delhi.

But considerable distrust remains in both camps. President Pervez Musharraf's demand that India reduce troops in the Baramulla and Kupwara regions of Kashmir - both infiltration routes - met a cold reception from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of last month's UN summit. Both sides are also stalemated over troop withdrawals from Siachen.

Although infiltration in Kashmir is down considerably - there were 40 crossovers recorded in August compared to 180 in July - India maintains the need to review the infiltration levels in the next three or four months before coming to a decision on troop reduction. Over 1,600 militants from groups like the Hizbul Mujahideencontinue to operate in Kashmir.

"India should expedite its review process and seriously consider troop reduction, as terrorism is almost at its lowest since the last decade," says A.G. Bhat, former chairman of All Parties Hurriyat Conference, the main separatist alliance in Indian-administered Kashmir. Troop reduction could build confidence to call a cease-fire with militant groups like Hizbul Mujahideen, and bring them to the negotiating table, he says.

Although militant factions still threaten peace prospects, Hurriyat's hard-line faction led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani received a blow when two of its constituents, National Front and People's Conference, decided to sever ties with him.

Hurriyat Chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq - earlier a hardliner - led a peace delegation to meet Prime Minister Singh in New Delhi last month. He also met President Musharraf in New York recently. He exhorted both sides to carry the dialogue forward considering the will of Kashmiri people.

Meanwhile, Singh has accepted President Musharraf's invitation to travel to Pakistan at the end of the year. It remains to be seen if another major terrorism incident like the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament will scuttle the progress.

"Washington at this point should just stand on the sidelines and watch," says Mr. Cohen, "but must be prepared to intervene should a crisis break out."

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