Cautious optimism

Print edition : December 23, 2001
JOHN CHERIAN

THE declaration of the 'Ramzan ceasefire' by the Indian government in Jammu and Kashmir on November 19 revived optimism about the resumption of a dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad. In fact, there has been a comparative lull in the Kashmir Valley s ince the announcement by the Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee that the Indian forces would not initiate action against the militants during the month of Ramzan. He said that India would continue with its efforts to normalise the situation in the State, and e xpressed the hope that infiltration along the Line of Control (LoC) would cease. Subse-quently, on December 2, the Pakistan government responded with a decision to "observe maximum restraint" along the LoC. This was conveyed through a statement issued by Pakistan Foreign Secretary Inamul Haq.

Indian officials admit that the level of infiltration by militants from across the border has come down drastically during the ceasefire period. A senior official said that the LoC had never been so peaceful in the last 30 years.

"We expect Pakistan to address our concerns and also those of the international community about cross-border terrorism, infiltration into India and the aiding and abetment of violence," a Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) statement on December 5 said. A ccording to the Ministry, the December 2 statement from Islamabad re-affirmed Pakistan's commitment to "earlier agreements" such as the Simla accords and the Lahore process. Pakistani diplomats have attached a lot of importance to the phrasing of the Ind ian response, which they say is totally different from New Delhi's previous responses.

Two days before India reacted, the Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar, in an interview to an Indian newspaper said that his country was committed to the Lahore process. The Indian government had for long been demanding such a public commitment from t he Musharraf government.

Pakistani officials say that they were not too enthused by Vajpayee's latest ceasefire initiative. The statement by the Prime Minister at Wagah in February 1999 about the possibility of extending the ceasefire and re-starting the peace process was more i mportant from Pakistan's point of view. Vajpayee's November 19 statement was interpreted in Islamabad as a signal that there was a possibility of the Lahore process being put back on track.

Observers in Pakistan have also noticed a mellowing in India's stance on the issue of cross border terrorism. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly in August this year, Vajpayee's primary focus was on this issue. "Terrorism and dialogue d o not go together," Vajpayee had said. The MEA statement only expressed the hope that "Pakistan would now be persuaded to cease promotion of cross-border terrorism so as to create an environment suitable for resumption of the composite dialogue". The sta tement reiterated that New Delhi "remains committed to the resumption of a composite dialogue".

At the same time, New Delhi has rejected Islamabad's renewed call for "tripartite talks" to resolve the Kashmir problem. Pakistani officials say that the Indian stance has not come as a surprise. But they have expressed the hope that the All Parties Hurr iyat Conference (APHC) leaders would be allowed to visit Pakistan for talks. Islamabad has invitated the APHC leaders for "consultations to prepare the ground for a tripartite process of negotiations" for a peaceful settlement of the Kashmir issue.

Officials from both countries, however, deny that pressure from Washington was one of the reasons for the latest developments. Pakistani officials privately admit that given the precarious state of the country's economy, the government can ill-afford to get mired in an open ended conflict. But they point out that India too is in a difficult situation: There has been a 23 per cent increase in defence expenditure and the Indian casualty rate has been quite high. Top Indian Army officials have been arguing that the defence forces should not be continuously involved in counter-insurgency operations. In his farewell speech, former Chief of the Army Staff, Gen. V.P. Malik, called for a diplomatic solution to the Kashmir problem. There are around half a milli on Indian troops in Kashmir.

There is cautious optimism for the resumption of bilateral talks. Pakistani officials point out that the issue of cross-border terrorism is no longer a pre-condition for resuming the dialogue. Islamabad wants a "bold decision" from India. The proposal to convert the LoC into a de jure border is a non starter, according to the Pakistan side. Allowing more United Nations personnel to monitor the LoC and reducing the size of the Indian troops in Kashmir are long-standing Pakistani demands.

Pakistani officials say that the "window of opportunity" was not availed of in July when the talks between the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Indian government collapsed. The Mujahideen forces had offered to hold talks with New Delhi at the prodding of the Pa kistani government. Differences of opinion between the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and the Home Ministry derailed that initiative. The Home Ministry was peeved that it was not kept fully in the picture by the PMO. This time, even Home Minister L.K. Adv ani has welcomed the ceasefire initiative. And this augurs well for the peace process.

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