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What India, Pakistan Won't Talk About

By J. Sri Raman

22 September 2004
t r u t h o u t

You cannot really describe them as talks to end talks. A dialogue to dodge the most important issues - that would better sum up the series of India-Pakistan parleys since the beginning of the year.

The talks go on. The series have moved rapidly through official-level rounds to talks in New Delhi on September 5-6 between the two External Affairs Ministers, India's K. Natwar Singh and Pakistan's Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri. The process is to culminate in a meeting of India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session later this month.

Marked by polite smiles and prolonged handshakes, the process continues without making the least progress on the two life-and-death issues for the sub-continent's people.

The more frightening and fundamental of the issues has, in fact, been forgotten, with both side tacitly agreeing to leave it untouched. The ministers have not wasted time over the minor problem of nuclear weapons. Their officials had disposed of it before, while discussing nuclear "confidence-building measures" (CBMs). These "measures" - like notification of each other before tests of nuclear-capable missiles - were somehow supposed to create confidence that the people of the two countries were safe even when such missiles stayed in military deployment and on hair-trigger alert.

General Musharraf has added his own reassurance in this regard. Addressing officers and soldiers at a garrison in Quetta on September 11, he reiterated his regime's resolve never ever to roll back its nuclear-weapon program. He added: "My government has spent more money in the last three years on enhancing Pakistan's nuclear capability than (spent for this purpose) in the previous 30 years."

The Indian government has not been forthcoming with a similar figure. There is little doubt, however, that it swells with the same pride over its own misuse of taxpayers' money to build mass-murder weapons. Or that it is as sternly resolved not to reverse its own program against South Asian peace. Remember, the joint document on CBMs desisted from mentioning regional nuclear disarmament even as a distant goal. Instead, it recorded the joint resolve of New Delhi and Islamabad to seek parity with the nuclear powers - or to join the 'nuclear club'.

Within months of India and Pakistan's nuclear-weapon tests in May 1998, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee surprised many with a bus ride to Lahore to meet with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif. The peace mission turned out to be a public relations exercise. The aim was to convince the international community that India and Pakistan could be counted upon to conduct themselves as 'responsible' nuclear-weapon states. The CBMs, too, it would seem, were meant to serve the same purpose.

The talks have run an almost identical course on the other issue, which both sides recognize as important and intractable.

An immediately striking parallel is President Musharraf's equally ringing statement on this issue in the same speech. "We will not give up Kashmir," he told the soldiers. "We have fought wars over it. Pakistan will have to ensure the interest of the Kashmiris." No such statement has emanated from New Delhi thus far. No doubt, however, that Natwar Singh was as uncompromising on India's 'national interest' as Kasuri was on Pakistan's. And it appeared incompatible with the interests of regional peace, in either case.

The ministers ended their meeting with emphatic assertions of irreconcilable stands on the issue. Singh identified the Kashmir problem with "cross-border terrorism" and Kasuri with human rights violations. They made no progress on the one proposal on people-to-people relations in Kashmir. India and Pakistan had restored a rail link between Attari and Lahore and a bus route between Amritsar and Lahore. But neither of these passed through disputed territory. Political constraints acted as a brake on the plan for a bus link between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, capitals of India-administered State of Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan-controlled Azad Kashmir.

Differences on the required travel document proved an insuperable roadblock. India's idea of passports as such documents was unacceptable to Pakistan, This, Kasuri and colleagues feared, would legitimize the Line of Control (LoC) as an international border. The LoC was a result of the Bangladesh war of 1971 and, therefore, a painful reminder of Pakistan's dismemberment and rout by India.

Clearly, the talks on Kashmir, on which neither side was ready to compromise, were also targeted at an international audience. Days after the ministers' meeting, both sides widely publicized a "secret" session of talks in Amritsar between the National Security Advisers of India and Pakistan. They were to discuss a document on Kashmir by UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, and it is anybody's guess if the paper reflected the views of only the Tony Blair regime.

The talks will go on. The participants, however, cannot hear the voice of the vast millions who want them to make genuine efforts for peace in South Asia.

A freelance journalist and a peace activist of India, J. Sri Raman is the author of Flashpoint (Common Courage Press, USA).






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