The latest search for lasting peace between India and Pakistan got off to a shaky start Saturday amid border clashes in Kashmir and political sniping over a meeting between Pakistan's president and separatist Kashmiri leaders.
On the eve of his summit with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Pakistan's military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, defied Indian government pressure and met with the Kashmiri leaders, whom India has long tried to deny a direct role in peace talks.
Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, a leader of the separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference delegation that met Musharraf at his embassy here Saturday, said the Pakistani president insisted that he would press Vajpayee to open a direct dialogue with them.
"It was the first time that a Pakistani leader said very clearly that there is absolutely going to be no compromise on the involvement of Kashmiris, and the APHC, as far as the future of Jammu and Kashmir is concerned," Farooq said in a telephone interview after his meeting with Musharraf.
The Kashmir conflict dates to 1947, when India and Pakistan divided the region as they broke from the British Empire. Both countries claim the area, and twice they have gone to war over it. With both India and Pakistan possessing nuclear weapons, Kashmir is considered one of the most likely starting points for a nuclear war, and, in a visit last year, then-President Clinton called the Indian subcontinent "the most dangerous place in the world."
In the more than 50 years of conflict, India has tried to keep the matter between itself and Pakistan, but the Hurriyat leaders are now hopeful that India's government will "see that bilateralism over Kashmir has failed," Farooq said.
"Our problem is not a border issue. It's not a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan," he said. It's an issue concerning millions of Kashmiris, he said, adding, "If you talk in terms of Kashmir without any deference to the people of Kashmir, that is completely illogical."
Farooq is a former chairman of the loose alliance of 23 Kashmiri separatist parties and a religious leader of the territory's Muslims, a position he inherited after assassins killed his father in 1990.
The half-hour meeting between the Pakistani leader and the Kashmiris was more than long enough to stir the political pot before the summit between Musharraf and Vajpayee, scheduled to last 4 1/2 hours today near the Taj Mahal in the northern Indian city of Agra.
For days before Musharraf arrived, the opposition Congress Party was pressuring Vajpayee's government to block the meeting, held before the Pakistani general attended a reception at his embassy.
But Jairam Ramesh, a senior Congress Party official and political columnist, said he doesn't think the flap over Musharraf meeting with the Kashmiri leaders will cause trouble at today's summit.
"I think a lot of this is shadow boxing," he said. "I think it's Musharraf trying to appeal to the [hard-line Islamic] mullah lobby in Pakistan."
The Kashmiri alliance leaders, who are frequently put under house arrest or jailed without trial by Indian authorities, also asked to meet Vajpayee, but he refused.
India has never said it won't talk to the alliance, according to Ramesh, only that Hurriyat "cannot dictate the agenda to the government and say, 'We are the sole representatives of the people of Kashmir.' "
What is really disappointing about Musharraf's visit, Ramesh added, is that he didn't bring economic and trade officials with him, despite Vajpayee's insistence that he wanted to talk about a range of bilateral issues, not just Kashmir.
"OK, Kashmir is central to our dispute, but there are other areas where we can explore possibilities," Ramesh said. "This is a missed opportunity."
Like Musharraf, the Kashmiri alliance leaders want today's summit to produce a time frame for specific steps to show Kashmiris that summits produce results, such as the release of political prisoners and fewer abuses by Indian security forces, Farooq said.
"We would like to see an improvement in the situation on the ground in, say, the next six months," he said. "If that happens, it definitely would help not only reduce tension, but help produce a more positive atmosphere between India and Pakistan."
India has long maintained that peace in Kashmir depends on Pakistan's ending what New Delhi claims is the government's direct support of Muslim guerrillas through arms supplies and training camps.
As the leaders of India and Pakistan prepared to talk peace for the 49th time since independence in 1947, their soldiers exchanged heavy small-arms fire into the early hours Saturday along the international border and a 1972 cease-fire line, called the Line of Control.
Stray bullets injured two civilians, including an infant, in Indian-controlled Jammu district late Friday, an unidentified police official told the Reuters news agency.
As many as 12 people were killed Saturday in violence related to Kashmir, police said.
Because the dispute over Kashmir is a long and complicated one, few expect a dramatic breakthrough today, and India's Foreign Ministry stressed Saturday that the talks are only part of a larger process, "a journey."
Musharraf's state visit to New Delhi was also a homecoming. He paid a visit to the building where he lived in Old Delhi as a boy of about 3 years old, before his family fled to Pakistan as "partition refugees."
Musharraf, who appointed himself president last month, became the first Pakistani head of state to lay a wreath at the site where Mohandas K. Gandhi was cremated after his assassination on Jan. 30, 1948.
In his guest book entry, Musharraf noted that Gandhi had "devoted his entire life to the struggle for nonviolence."