A new round, with hope

Print edition : July 30, 2004

Foreign Secretary Shashank (right) with his Pakistani counterpart Riaz Khokhar at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on June 27. -

The desire to move ahead with efforts to resolve contentious issues characterises the latest round of bilateral talks between India and Pakistan.

INDIA and Pakistan have expressed satisfaction over the progress made in the latest round of bilateral talks, held in New Delhi in the last week of June. Both countries said that there was a "detailed exchange" of views on Jammu and Kashmir and agreed to continue with their "sustained and serious" dialogue to find a peaceful, negotiated and "final" settlement to the Kashmir issue. The Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan, Shashank and Riaz Khokhar, will be meeting again on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Foreign Ministers' meeting scheduled to be held in the third week of July in Islamabad. Another meeting between the two officials is scheduled for August, before the Indian and Pakistani Foreign Ministers have formal talks in the same month in New Delhi.

"It was a good exchange of views," Pakistan's High Commissioner to India, Aziz Ahmad Khan, told Frontline. He said the statements made by senior officials of the new Central government, including Prime Minster Manmohan Singh, External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh and National Security Adviser J.N. Dixit, were very positive.

To the apparent discomfiture of Pakistan, details of the proposals made during the recent talks have been leaked to the media. Islamabad feels that when sensitive issues are discussed, the glare of the media has to be avoided.

INDIA proposed that the Line of Control (LoC) be converted into a line of peace and tranquillity and the ceasefire that has been in place for the last seven months be built upon. Pakistan, on the other hand, talked about the need for a plebiscite in the Kashmir Valley. Pakistani officials pointed out that there had been tranquillity along the LoC for quite some time and that infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir had come down drastically.

Although Islamabad considers the sophisticated fencing of large sections of the LoC by New Delhi as "illegal", Pakistani officials say that the Israel-made sensors and other high-tech equipment the Indian Army has installed are highly effective in spotting infiltrators. They also point out that the difficult terrain along the LoC is mined and there are 250,000 Indian soldiers guarding the 744-km-long LoC. The ceasefire along the LoC has been another disincentive for would-be infiltrators, argue Pakistani officials. The Indian Army had claimed that much of the infiltration across the LoC used to take place under the protective fire cover of the Pakistani Army.

Pakistani officials dismiss out of hand talk of the continued existence of training camps for "terrorists" on their territory. They say that their leadership itself is under grave threat from political extremists. Many of these extremists are involved in the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir. The officials aver that the demand to close down the madrassas (religious schools) is "unacceptable". According to them, after President Pervez Musharraf assumed office the government has been monitoring the madrassas strictly and encouraging them to introduce science and mathematics into their curriculum. They point out that madrassas fulfil an essential function in an Islamic state as they provide education, board and lodging free of cost to needy children. However, Pakistani officials assert, it is ensured that non-Pakistanis do not get admitted to the schools.

India suggested a further expansion of military contacts between the two countries, including the setting up of military hotlines between the service chiefs and interaction between the institutions linked with the militaries. Pakistan preferred the setting up of expert groups similar to the ones set up as part of the confidence building measures (CBMs) on nuclear weapons.

At the Line of Control in the Tangdar sector. At the bilateral talks in New Delhi, India proposed that the LoC be converted into a line of peace and tranquillity.-NISSAR AHMED

Another important suggestion made by India was the establishment of bus transport between Jammu and Sialkot, cutting across the border in the Jammu region. However, Pakistan seems to have a problem with readily accepting bus routes linking Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and Jammu and Kashmir. The demand for a bus route between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad is still on hold. Pakistani officials say that the service should be only for the residents of Jammu and Kashmir and that there is no question of accepting Indian passports as valid travel documents. They also said that they would rather prefer shorter "shuttle services" from points near the border. Such a move, they emphasise, would help more people to travel across the border. Pakistan had earlier suggested that the Delhi-Lahore bus route be substituted by a shorter Amritsar-Lahore route.

Both sides also discussed ways and means to develop further people-to-people contact, especially between the people of Jammu and Kashmir and POK. Meanwhile, in the first week of July a team of boy scouts from Pakistan visited the Kashmir Valley. That visit caused an uproar in the Pakistani media. Sections of the media alleged that Islamabad has already started bending under Indian pressure.

The two sides have agreed to restore immediately the full staff strength at their respective High Commissions and agreed in principle to reopen their Consulates in Mumbai and Karachi. All fishermen in each other's custody, detained for breaching each other's maritime borders, are to be released immediately.

PAKISTANI officials say that both sides are happy with the way the first round of talks went, but they warn that it would be a "long haul" before concrete results can be achieved. Both sides will have to be "flexible", they affirm. "Flexibility means both sides making concessions," said a senior official. The Pakistani view is that "Kashmiri opinion" has to be taken into consideration. The officials say that the entire spectrum of "Kashmiri opinion", including those in government, those who participated in elections, the various Hurriyat factions, and also the Kashmiri diaspora, should be included in the dialogue process. "There has to be a mechanism to find out Kashmiri public opinion," said a Pakistani diplomat. Islamabad believes that the dialogue between New Delhi and the Hurriyat is "fundamentally flawed". It feels that it would be better if India and Pakistan initiate the dialogue process and then allow the Kashmiris to join in. One of the suggestions is to hold a grand "Loya Jirga", patterned on the Afghanistan model in which Kashmiris of all political persuasions can attend and collectively determine their negotiating position.

The new Indian government has been criticised in some quarters for allegedly making unnecessary concessions to Pakistan. The critics, many of whom belonging to the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, are of the view that the reiteration of the commitment of the two countries "to the principles and purposes of the Charter of the U.N. [United Nations], and their determination to implement the Simla Agreement in letter and spirit", as mentioned in the statement issued after the talks between the Foreign Secretaries, constitutes a significant concession to Islamabad. Their argument is that this commitment would help to internationalise the Kashmir issue and involve third parties in the dispute. It has been pointed out that both India and Pakistan, being members of the U.N., have to subscribe to the U.N. Charter. Besides, the First Article of the Simla Agreement refers to the U.N. Charter.

Pakistani officials said that they subscribe to both the U.N. resolutions on Kashmir and the Simla agreement. They, however, pointed out that the joint statements issued in January, when the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in Islamabad, and in New Delhi in June talk about finding a bilateral settlement to the Kashmir issue. At the same time, Pakistani officials emphasise that Pakistan has "never forfeited its right to internationalise the issue of Kashmir".

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