Recently India and Pakistan were in the news, and this time it was good news. They agreed to enter into substantial and comprehensive negotiation on all outstanding issues between them, including the territorial dispute over the northern Himalayan region of Kashmir. Since independence from the British in 1947, they have fought two wars over Kashmir and have continued to spend a disproportionate amount of their meager resources on defense.
At the meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Islamabad recently, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf surprised everyone by announcing a comprehensive dialogue to resolve their differences. It was not the announcement but the palpable tone of sincerity that struck everyone.
Is this rapprochement any different than the umpteen rounds of talks between them in the past 57 years? After all, they have been through this farce before and each time they reached a dead end when neither would budge from their oft-stated rigid position. But this time there appears to be a difference. Not only have they agreed to talk, they have also publicly indicated their willingness to compromise on their previously rigid and unyielding position on Kashmir. Perhaps the leaders realize that without a compromise on outstanding issues there can be no stable future for their people. There is little doubt that the United States played an important behind-the-scenes role in nudging them toward a dialogue. In the global war on terrorism, a feud between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan has been a dangerous and unwanted distraction for the United States.
Much has been said and a lot more written about the genesis of the Kashmir dispute. In 1948 when the United Nations brokered a cease-fire between warring India and Pakistan, the Kashmiris were to decide in a plebiscite to either stay within India or join Pakistan. There was no other option. The plebiscite was never carried out. In recent years however, a third option has emerged: total independence from India or an autonomous Kashmir within an Indian Union. If a plebiscite were held in the Valley of Kashmir today, a majority of Kashmiris would opt for the third option. Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Musharraf realize that.
They also realize that Kashmiris cannot be subjugated against their will. While Pakistan has definitely helped fuel the fires of insurgency in Indian Kashmir, the insurgency has been indigenous and carried out by the Kashmiris themselves. The ongoing conflict in Kashmir has been a drain on both India and Pakistan and has had a devastating effect on the people of Kashmir.
India and Pakistan have already taken initial steps to build confidence and to push the process of negotiation forward. Travel between the countries has been relaxed; air service has been restored, and, in an unprecedented gesture of goodwill, Mr. Vajpayee has offered to start a bus service between the divided parts of Kashmir. Last year parliamentary delegations exchanged visits and there have been more contacts between academics, artists, and writers. Despite these positive developments there are elements on both sides that would not accept anything but a full loaf. For this process to succeed, the Hindu fundamentalists and ultranationalists in India and their counterparts in Pakistan have to be sidelined.
On these pages I have often pleaded with Indians and Pakistanis in this community to move beyond individual personal friendships and develop a south Asia forum where issues and problems confronting India and Pakistan could be discussed and articulated. Unfortunately these pleas have landed on deaf ears because of a few hotheads. These self-appointed custodians of their national honor continue to widen the gulf between the two communities with their in<0x00AD>cendiary and poisonous rhetoric both in private and in public.
It is amusing that while leaders in India and Pakistan are willing to compromise for the sake of peace, these prejudiced individuals continue to parrot the old party line. They also need to be sidelined if we are to see amity between Indians and Pakistanis in this town.