India and Pakistan can best go about building peace after half a century of hostilities by first generating trust and good faith and leaving the problem both sides care about most -- Kashmir -- for last. Otherwise their latest efforts, like so many before, are doomed to failure.
That was the response of several South Asia experts following word from the two countries’ capitals Friday that they plan to resume diplomatic relations and perhaps commercial and cultural ties after a two-year freeze. Hopes were rekindled that the nuclear-armed neighbors, who have fought three wars in the last 56 years and came close to sparking a nuclear conflagration in 1998, might yet find common ground.
Although the two nations have plenty of other issues to talk about, what’s paramount is the future of Kashmir, the storied Himalayan region that has become what South Asia expert Dennis Kux calls the “chronic flash point” for hostilities between them.
While there is no indication of how the two might deal with the seemingly insoluble territorial issue, what’s important is that they get in the habit of sitting down and talking, said Kux, an author, retired diplomat and senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
“There is an opportunity to make some progress. The atmosphere could change. But first they have to develop some confidence and show they can solve some less important things,” he said.
Ever since colonial India was divided in 1947, with Muslim-dominated provinces going to Pakistan and predominantly Hindu provinces to India, Pakistan has been trying to reclaim all of Kashmir. Despite its 80% Muslim population, the region was largely absorbed by India, which has always rebuffed Pakistan’s idea of a plebiscite to let the Kashmiri people decide which country to belong to.
At some point, Pakistan may have to accept that its dream of gaining Kashmir is unattainable, said Teresita Schaffer, a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and head of the think tank’s South Asia program.
“The partition was 56 years ago and a lot has happened since that time, and to try to go back to the creation as a basis for settlement is not going to be successful,” Schaffer said. “Now there are nukes on both sides, and that makes any changes in borders difficult to achieve.”
The new initiative is the result of an overture by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, 78, who told lawmakers in New Delhi on Friday that he wants to leave a legacy of peace. His gesture was immediately accepted and reciprocated by his Pakistani counterpart, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali. Plans call for them to participate in a summit, although no date has been set.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage is scheduled to visit the region this week and is expected to help get the discussions rolling. The United States sees an opportunity to defuse a situation that in 1998 nearly triggered the world’s first nuclear bombing since the end of World War II.
Two previous summits of Indian and Pakistani leaders, in 1999 and 2001, ended in failure. The meeting in 1999, of Vajpayee and then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was followed not long afterward by a Pakistani military coup that installed current strongman Pervez Musharraf as president. The meeting in 2001 in Acra, India, between Vajpayee and Musharraf, ended in disarray when the two countries could not agree on a final statement.
“Pakistan feels intense bitterness because Kashmir is the one Muslim majority area that got away,” Schaffer said. Meanwhile, India deeply resents what it alleges has been Pakistan’s ongoing sponsorship of terrorist attacks in Kashmir and elsewhere.
The attacks “have bled India dry,” Kux said, because of the need to station tens of thousands of troops in Kashmir in the northern frontier area. Terrorists also attacked the Indian Parliament in December 2001, leaving 14 people dead including the five assailants. India blames Pakistan for that attack.
For those reasons, some observers familiar with the countries’ history are pessimistic that the upcoming peace effort will be any more consequential than past ones.
Ajai Sahni, a New Delhi security expert and director of the Institute for Conflict Management, said both countries are merely “playing to the U.S. gallery,” and compared the latest moves to a “fishing expedition -- heavy on expectation and poor in planning and preparation.”
“There is no groundwork, only a theatrical and heavily personalized reliance on dramatic gestures,” Sahni said.
In Pakistan as well, observers warned against inflated expectations.
“Suddenly, within the media and bureaucrats, there is an expectation-cum-suggestion that a 15-minute telephonic conversation between the two prime ministers has broken the ice,” foreign policy expert Nasim Zehra said in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, on Saturday.
An editorial titled “A Step Forward, Maybe” in the daily newspaper Dawn was equally skeptical.
“Relations between Pakistan and India have a tendency to relapse into crises which no side wants but which seem to recur with almost predictable regularity,” it said.
Vajpayee’s call for negotiations is in keeping with his desire to be known as a man of peace.
“We should not remain a slave to the past, while not forgetting it either,” the prime minister told legislators. But his overture also reflected a recognition that political realities are changing on his subcontinent.
With economic growth falling far short of what is required to accommodate an exploding population, India is looking to improve its ties to the United States but knows those ties can strengthen only so much while its relations with Pakistan remain rocky. The U.S. currently and historically has had a better relationship with Islamabad.
Also spurring India to negotiate is that the regional government in Kashmir has turned less friendly to the central government as the former has slowly lost many of the special powers granted it after partition.
Pakistan might be motivated to negotiate because it too is being bled dry by high military costs when it needs to invest in human capital and infrastructure.
A status for Kashmir that both parties might someday accept is one in which it has semi-sovereignty, Kux said.
If a rapprochement is reached, it could well turn out that cricket had something to do with it. Along with binational civil air, highway and train routes, the Indian government said, sporting relations with Pakistan might soon resume as well. That announcement was well received in cricket-crazy quarters in both countries.
The two countries have assiduously avoided playing each other at various regional and world tournaments since relations soured, much to the disappointment of die-hard fans in both nations.
Special correspondents Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad and Shankadeep Choudhury in New Delhi contributed to this report.