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A ray of hope

By Ershad Mahmud, May 7, 2009


T HE Mumbai carnage has rolled back the five-year old composite dialogue process between India and Pakistan. Conversely, the bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad and the trade route across the Line of Control (LoC) not only remain intact but are also making some progress.

Recently, local authorities decided to open Poonch-Rawalakot route for two days a week instead of once a week. Despite lack of adequate trade facilities this initiative can help double the trade volume between the two sides. Additionally, dozens of people would travel across LoC every week.

In the past, both Islamabad and New Delhi used to suspend normalisation process in Kashmir whenever any tension erupted. Fortunately, this time the atmosphere remains largely peaceful. There occurred a few Isolated incidents of skirmishes along the LoC. In fact, Islamabad and New Delhi have shown remarkable restraint even the hostility was at its peak.

Last year’s state elections in the Indian held Jammu and Kashmir also brought into focus the need for early settlement of the Kashmir dispute. Both the ruling and opposition parties used every opportunity to impress upon New Delhi to resume the stalled talks with Pakistan. They made it clear that without addressing the broader issue of the future status of Jammu and Kashmir no lasting peace and stability can be achieved. This realisation has narrowed the ideological divide between the separatists and the pro-Delhi parties to a greater extent.

The widespread desire to seek early solution of the conflict is seen as a positive sign to restart triangular negotiations between Islamabad and New Delhi, between Delhi and separatists and finally between Islamabad and Kashmiri leaders. With a view to clinch Hindu votes in the current national elections in India, the Congress and BJP have adopted a tough stance towards Pakistan. This is in contrast to the position taken by them in the 2004 elections when both the parties were favouring Pakistan-India friendship and cordial relations. This time, their elections’ flagship is to fight against terrorism or Pakistan.

Relations with Pakistan also figure prominently in the election manifestos of several Indian political parties. The BJP says that if it were to form government it will resume peace talks with Pakistan but only after Islamabad dismantles the ‘terrorist infrastructure’ on its soil. Without that there can be no comprehensive dialogue with Islamabad.

The BJP leadership has persistently been accusing the Congress-led ruling alliance of being soft towards Pakistan and making unnecessary concessions to it. But the Congress party itself has been tough towards Pakistan and wants it to come up clean on Mumbai issue before the peace process could be revived.

Recently, Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi sought resumption of peace process but India refused to do so and said that unless those behind Mumbai attacks were brought to justice India would not restart the dialogue. Likewise, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that when his people were being killed he could not favour dialogue between two countries.

Some observers believe that the new government to be installed after the electoral exercise may initiate talks with Pakistan to restart the peace process and particularly refocus on confidence building measures in Jammu and Kashmir. However, the increasing diatribe against the 'dubious' role of Pakistan’s secret services in the ‘war on terror’ and Washington’s ever-increasing partisanship towards New Delhi has disappointed Pakistan’s security establishment. Additionally, the IndiaAfghanistan proximity and Washington’ complicity with it has also sent negative signals to Islamabad.

Traditionally, the Kashmir issue has been the bone of contention be tween the two neighbouring countries but now a number of other issues have cropped up and which have taken the centre-stage. The alleged Indian support for Baloch insurgency and terrorist networks in Pakistan’s tribal areas have given a new dimension to their already soured relations. 

Kashmir has been often linked with other conflicts in the region particularly with the Afghanistan and terrorism. Not long ago, the United States’ ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, had mentioned that the Kashmir conflict, along with a few others such as the Palestinians’ struggle, was one of the most dangerous in the world. Needless to say that British Foreign Secretary David Miliband had also in his recent statements underlined the urgent need for settlement of the Kashmir dispute. His contention is that the resolution of this dispute would deprive extremists in the region of their main logic to resort to use of arms.

In 2008, a mass uprising had erupted again in Kashmir but remained largely peaceful. The young educated separatist leaders and traders think that the era of armed struggle has come to an end and any armed campaign would not get world support in the changed scenario. However, several thousands of people took to the streets of Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir , and marched to the office of the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) to assert that the issue of Kashmir is still alive. The mass protests this time changed the violent face of Kashmir into a peaceful one. It received huge support not only from international community but also from the Indian civil society groups. It encouraged peaceful political activists to convince militants to shun the path of violence and find political means to advance their cause. This method seemed to be effective until the attacks on Mumbai.

Meanwhile, a number of negative and positive developments are taking place in the region. The robust people-to-people contacts and other socio-political ties between Pakistan and Indian had created a large constituency and to some extent had transformed the traditional discourse over bilateral relations from zero sum game to cooperative mode in recent years. In the wake of Mumbai attacks the peace lobby was marginalised and hawks took the centre stage on both sides of the border. But moderates are now again gaining ground. Regardless of lukewarm response by the governments, a few civil society groups had visited Islamabad and New Delhi to break the deadlock between the two countries at unofficial level.

It is time to come up with creative ideas and pragmatic initiatives to put harmonious Pakistan-India relations back on the rails immediately after the Indian national elections. A section of the media and several political actors had done a great deal of damage to the peace process. It can be undone only with the greater civil society intervention and a positive media role.

Fortunately, India and Pakistan had arrived at a closer and broader understanding of the Kashmir issue and had already mobilised greater support inside Jammu and Kashmir. Besides, their governments had initiated a number of positive steps for building cooperation between the two countries. The bus service and the opening of trade routes are the benchmarks of the positive forward movement. Further, institutional cooperation between the divided parts of Jammu andwas also Kashmir envisaged and, in fact, some good news was on the anvil but the Mumbai episode ruined all these gains. Now, Islamabad and New Delhi along with Srinagar and Muzaffarabad will have to try again to capitalise on the already agreed outlines of the settlement.

 The writer is Islamabad-based freelance journalist and researcher.

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