Bus a good foundation for peace
By Khalid Hasan
WASHINGTON: Speakers at a meeting held here on Thursday expressed “cautious optimism” about the current India-Pakistan peace process, while praising the start of a bus service between the two parts of Kashmir as a good foundation for the eventual settlement of the 58-year old issue.
The meeting was organised by Bridging Nations, an organisation founded by Dr P Ambegaonkar, an Indian-American entrepreneur. Addressing the gathering that consisted of Americans, Indians and Pakistanis, Teresita Schaffer, head of the South Asia programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said one of the most positive aspects of the present situation was that the ceasefire on the Line of Control had held for a year and a half. She said the agreement to start bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad was the first agreement between India and Pakistan that involved the Kashmiris who had been left out of most peace efforts so far. She said a lot remains to be done, but it was essential that New Delhi should start talking to Kashmiris in the Indian-administered part of the State. She warned that the people-to-people dialogue, unless backed by a dialogue between the two governments and Kashmiri representatives, would not be enough. She called on New Delhi and Islamabad to “think big.” She said what was new about the situation was that India and Pakistan were in a genuinely friendly frame of mind and were committed to continuing the dialogue. They had thus begun to exorcise the suspicions that had characterised their relationship for 57 years.
Michael Krepon, founding president of the Stimson Centre, called Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh an “odd couple”, but added that many times in history, it has been odd couples like these two that have made peace and settled long-standing differences. These two leaders, he stressed, are willing to try. “If you are going to make peace, there will be risk-taking and you are also going to make mistakes,” he cautioned. He underscored the fact that there were “lots of good and creative ideas” about today in the two countries that could eventually translate into peace and dispute settlement. He hoped the time for playing “old games” was over and things would move forward. He said those who have suffered in Kashmir need to have their suffering brought to an end. They need peace and quiet and opportunities to live normal, fruitful lives. The possibilities are there and no better opportunity has presented itself before as the one at present. He urged support for President Musharraf and Prime Minister Singh, adding, “Let’s not keep score.”
Prof Sunil Khilnani of the Johns Hopkins University said when it came to India-Pakistan dialogue the past record was not very encouraging. The real question was: is there anything different this time? Is there anything in the objective situation that makes a solution of the Kashmir issue possible, he asked? Seen from an Indian perspective, there is no change in the objective situation, he noted. It would also need to be seen if any Indian offer would be acceptable to Pakistan, he added. A shift in perspective, he observed, would require statesmanship from both sides. One thing is clear, he pointed out. There is a change in popular sentiment in the two countries where people want the two governments to “get on with things and open up.” Each country would have to be prepared to “give something,” though, he added.
Prof Maya Chadda of William Paterson University, New Jersey, said India has a certain vision of itself and of its “route to greatness”. The bus service between the two Kashmir is a sort of insurance in favour of peace. There is also popular support for the current policy in India. The question is: will Pakistan be able to maintain the status quo in Kashmir? She said India had made no “trade-offs” with the United States insofar as the present peace process was concerned.
Dr Rajesh Kadian, author of a number of books on Kashmir and the Indian army, told the meeting that there were other areas of the Kashmir state that need to be linked up through bus services. He also highlighted the significance of goods-carrying trucks that had begun plying along the Jehlum Valley Road. He said it was important that commerce should pick up and the traditional routes linking the former state with areas that are now Pakistan should be restored. He said he was “more than cautiously optimistic” about the present peace process.
Dr Vijay Sazawal, who represents the viewpoint of the dislocated Kashmiri Pandit community, said the search of the Kashmiris for a better life had been hijacked by elements that had other ends in view. Tranquility in Kashmir, he pointed out, would depend on democracy. He paid tribute to President Pervez Musharraf whom he gave “full credit” for having initiated the present peace process. The only question is, he stressed: will the initiative he has taken continue when he is no longer on the scene?