PEACE has broken out between India and Pakistan. Again.
In the past 58 years there have been many peace initiatives between the South Asian neighbors but real peace has always been elusive. One tends to be skeptical of promising and encouraging news coming out of New Delhi and Islamabad.
With that backdrop let us examine the recent round of diplomacy in New Delhi. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf went to India ostensibly to watch a cricket match between India and Pakistan. While Pakistanis and Indians were dueling on the cricket field, President Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh indulged in some serious negotiations for three days. The results were encouraging.
No, there was still no breakthrough on the sticky issue of Kashmir that has bedeviled their relations since independence from the British in 1947. But both countries have agreed to continue to expand the scope of confidence-building measures that were started 18 months ago. These include relaxation of trade and commerce, renewal of rail links, and citizen-to-citizen exchange in an atmosphere of friendship and trust. The people in both countries have welcomed these incremental steps toward a permanent and durable peace.
Perhaps the most significant step was the recent opening of the bus service between Srinagar in Indian Kashmir and Muzafarabad in Pakistani Kashmir. Despite threats and acts of sabotage by separatists in Indian Kashmir, the bus made its scheduled run. The tearful reunion of divided families was emotional and heart-wrenching.
During the summit in New Delhi they also decided to withdraw troops from Siachin Glacier in the Himalayas where the two countries have faced off at an elevation of more than 20,000 feet. It cost them a million dollars a day to stare at each other across the frigid expanse where more soldiers have died of high altitude sickness than by enemy bullets.
In New Delhi President Musharraf also met leaders of the All Party Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella group representing various political parties in Indian Kashmir. The leaders are to visit Pakistan later this year for further talks with Pakistani officials and also with leaders from the Pakistani side of Kashmir. India has agreed to allow Hurriyat leaders to visit Pakistan. Any final settlement of the Kashmir dispute would have to involve Kashmiris from both sides of the Line of Control. In the past they have not been part of the equation.
There are elements in both countries that would like to sabotage this latest effort to bring the countries closer. On the Indian side is the militant Hindu ultranationalist party Shiv Sena, which would not allow any rapprochement with Pakistan. On the Pakistan side the religious parties hold the same view. The Pakistani religious parties were in fact against the creation of Pakistan. Now both these elements have taken up the banners of hatred and intolerance to create obstacles to peace.
There is a groundswell of good will between most Indians and Pakistanis. They share common bonds of history, culture, and the arts. For the past 58 years the festering problem of Kashmir has held them back and kept them apart.
The history of Indo-Pakistan relations is replete with false hopes and unrealistic expectations. Maybe the soft spoken Manmohan Singh and pragmatic Pervez Musharraf could eventually pull off a surprise that has eluded their predecessors.