Prague, 6 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In a signal that India and Pakistan are taking steps toward resolving their decades-old dispute over Kashmir, the two governments today announced they will begin a broad peace dialogue next month that covers all of their issues of contention.
Speaking in Islamabad at the conclusion of the summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha today expressed confidence that an "ongoing dialogue" will lead to a lasting peace agreement that includes a satisfactory resolution of the Kashmir dispute.
"We have agreed to commence the process of the composite dialogue in February 2004. The details [including the time and location of next month's talks] -- have to be worked out," Sinha said.
Today's joint statement from Islamabad and New Delhi says India's prime minister stressed that violence, hostility, and terrorism must be prevented in order to "take forward and sustain the dialogue process."
The statement also says Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf promised Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee that he "will not permit any territory under Pakistan's control to be used to support terrorism in any manner."
Musharraf also emphasized that positive results would come from "a sustained and productive dialogue addressing all issues."
"This is a beginning. It's not an end," he said. "This statement is not an end in itself, obviously. It's a beginning, but a good beginning has been made," Musharraf said.
Musharraf praised what he called "good statesmanship" on the part of Vajpayee during his visit to Islamabad this week for the SAARC summit. He also pledged that Pakistan would remain sincere about its promise to prevent cross-border terrorism.
"We will move forward with hard work, with sincerity and with trusting each other. Pakistan will play its role effectively in the desire and sincerity to move forward."
The prime minister of Pakistan, Zafarullah Khan Jamali, also said today that his meeting with Vajpayee left him confident that the peace process can move forward.
"I am sure and confident that we will make progress now because I think the political irritants, whatever they have been in the past few years, have to be set aside. And SAARC has to progress as a region. Not as individuals. That will be our approach -- and a positive approach, I assure you," Jamali said.
Jamali also acknowledged that the success of moves toward regional integration in South Asia hinge on peace between India and Pakistan, the two biggest members of the seven-nation SAARC. "The first positive approach has been that the SAARC summit has taken place," he said. "And, of course, during the conversations, practically, many things are discussed keeping the SAARC in the forefront. That is the requirement. And naturally, when people from different walks of life meet, they do talk about things and chalk out plans. And only time would prove as to what has come up."
Analysts from both Pakistan and India agree that the spirit of rapprochement on the sidelines of this week's summit has been largely the result of confidence-building measures taken by Pakistan since the Indian prime minister extended a "hand of friendship" to Islamabad last April.
Musharraf recently dropped Pakistan's decades-old demand for a public referendum on independence in Indian-administered Kashmir. The government in Islamabad also has implemented a cease-fire along the 1,000-kilometer "line of control" that divides Kashmir between Pakistani and Indian rule. Although attacks attributed to Islamic militants have been carried out since then within Indian-administered Kashmir, the cease-fire along the boundary has largely held.
Subramanyan Chandrasekharan is director of the South Asia Analysis Group, a New Delhi-based independent think tank. He tells RFE/RL that the Indian government's statements today are a direct response to the initiatives taken by Islamabad.
"We have agreed to commence the process of the composite dialogue in February 2004. The details have to be worked out."
But Chandrasekharan says it is too early to say whether the start of a peace dialogue means that a breakthrough on Kashmir is imminent.
"The press has been rather a bit euphoric and the public has also been watching the developments. It is too early to say where it could lead to. All this right now -- the confidence-building measures -- are all right. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating -- whether this is going to be a basic change of mind by the Pakistanis toward India or if it is just a cosmetic effort," Chandrasekharan said.
Chandrasekharan also says that the willingness of the Indian government to engage in a broad dialogue, rather than talks that focus exclusively on Kashmir, has been a constant policy on New Delhi's part.
"There is no change in the stand of the government of India. What Pakistan wanted [in the past] was to solve Kashmir first and then the rest of the [disputed issues] would follow. So India said, 'No. It can't be that way. Every issue should be discussed along with Jammu and Kashmir.' So I think the Indian position is now being taken seriously. The Indian position continues to be that the Kashmir issue is not something that can be discussed overnight. It will take a long time. So let us be clear. The Indian position is [for Pakistan] to stop cross-border terrorism. Stop supporting the militants and give peace a chance. Then we shall see," Chandrasekharan said.
Some experts say India's demand for Islamabad to crack down on cross-border terrorism could get a boost from two failed assassination attempts against Musharraf in the past month.
Both attacks have been blamed on Islamic militants based in Pakistan -- including those who New Delhi accuses of cross-border attacks into India and Indian-administered Kashmir.
Analysts conclude that Musharraf has a better chance of clamping down on terrorist and rebel bases inside Pakistan if there is progress toward a lasting peace settlement with India.