India, Pakistan Schedule Talks
Amid signs of strain in their uneasy peace, India and Pakistan agreed Tuesday to begin new negotiations at the end of this month.
The first round of peace talks between the countries’ foreign secretaries, the top civil servants under the foreign ministers, are set for June 27-28, new Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh announced.
He said Indian and Pakistani experts would meet here June 19-20 to discuss confidence-building measures, such as steps to avoid accidental war between the two nuclear powers.
“The past has been scribbled with booby traps on the ground and high-tension wires above,” said Singh, a veteran diplomat and former ambassador to Pakistan. “We want to put an end to that. This relation should be based on trust, not mistrust -- frankness, not fear.”
Then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf agreed to the peace process in February. Vajpayee’s government was defeated last month by an alliance led by Sonia Gandhi’s Congress Party.
India’s new prime minister, Manmohan Singh, immediately said he wanted to seek lasting peace with Pakistan. However, in the weeks before the hard bargaining begins, officials from the two countries have been in an ugly public spat over how the negotiations should proceed.
Musharraf, under pressure from Islamic radicals who use the disputed region of Kashmir as a rallying cause, is pushing for a final solution by the end of the year to the decades-old conflict over the divided and mainly Muslim territory.
But India feels that it has the upper hand as foreign pressure builds on Pakistan to permanently close down Kashmiri militant groups based in the Pakistani-held portion of the territory, and it doesn’t want Kashmir to dominate the talks at the expense of progress on trade and other issues.
India’s foreign minister angered the Pakistani government Friday by comparing the conflict over Kashmir to India’s much less volatile border dispute with China.
The Kashmir dispute caused two of the three wars between India and Pakistan since their independence from Britain in 1947; China and India fought a brief border war in 1962. Trade and other ties between India and China have improved steadily in recent years.
“Pakistan is close to China and so is India,” Foreign Minister Singh told a newspaper last week. “So why don’t we follow the same example? We’re saying don’t forget Kashmir, [but] keep it aside for faster progress on other issues.”
Singh said both sides had to be less focused on the territorial dispute. “If our diplomats spend 30% of their time on [Kashmir], their diplomats spend 85%. This must stop,” he said.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Mian Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri responded by asking Indian officials to stop making statements that could lead to misunderstandings. He proposed a “rhetoric restraint regime” that would impose a gag order on controversial statements.
On Saturday, Singh said a 1972 agreement that ended the third war between India and Pakistan and established the Line of Control that divides Kashmir should form the basis of the current talks.
India has proposed making it easier for Kashmiris to cross that cease-fire line and reunite with families, but Pakistan fears that may be a step toward making the line an international border. Publicly at least, Pakistan has rejected any solution that would make the Line of Control a permanent border.
In a statement released in Islamabad on Monday, Kasuri insisted that no previous accords between the two countries should be used “for the purpose of freezing the Kashmir issue.”
“If one agreement were a panacea, we would have resolved our problems long ago,” the Pakistani foreign minister said. “Our object is to transcend the past by resolving the issues. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
Under the February agreement, any dispute between the countries is up for discussion, but the key issue will be Kashmir. Foreign ministers are to meet in August to decide whether there is enough progress to justify further talks.
On Monday, Pakistan’s president took the unusual step of talking with Vajpayee, the former prime minister, by phone for about 15 minutes, even as India’s new government defended its position on the peace process.
Musharraf expressed the hope that Vajpayee would continue to play a role in advancing peace in the region, according to Pakistani Information Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed.
Vajpayee stepped down as leader of his defeated Bharatiya Janata Party on Tuesday. Hindu hard-liner Lal Krishna Advani will lead the now-opposition party in the lower house of Parliament.