Prague, 16 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Officials from the foreign ministries of India and Pakistan today started their first formal peace talks in more than two years. Nuclear security and the dispute over the divided region of Kashmir are high on the agenda of the three-day meeting in Islamabad.
"I think that the whole thing is based on shifting sands. Nothing will stand. And history is a witness to this reality."
But a quick breakthrough on control over Kashmir is not expected soon. Officials from both India and Pakistan have described their meetings as "talks about talks." Their goal this week is to draft a formal agenda for what is expected to be a long and drawn-out peace process.
Teresita Schaffer, the director of the South Asia Program at the Washington-based Center for Security and International Studies, says this week's talks should reveal how willing both sides are to address the issues that divide them.
"One [issue] which is particularly important to Pakistan is Kashmir. And the other is nuclear risk reduction. Nuclear risk reduction, it's fair to say, is the one [issue] that the outside world cares most about. Kashmir is the one whose progress, or lack thereof, is probably going to determine the future of this peace effort," Schaffer said.
For India, a key demand has been that Pakistan enforce its promise to stop Islamic militants from crossing into Indian-administered Kashmir to join a 15-year-old insurgency.
Indian army chief General N.C. Vij says he is waiting to see if there will be a significant reduction of incursions after the snow melts on the mountain passes that militants have used in the past.
"Infiltration is low [for now]. But even if it is there, then we will be able to contain the problem. We have proper fencing where there is heavy deployment. The weather is also not favorable for infiltration [at the moment]. There could be change in the mindset of the militants as well. We will be able to give you a clear picture only in May and June, the time when infiltration usually peaks," Vij said.
Pakistan wants India to put the issues of human rights and policing within Indian-administered Kashmir on the agenda -- issues that New Delhi has dismissed in the past as "internal matters." Pakistan also wants a timetable for higher-level meetings between foreign ministers and for another summit between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Schaffer says it is crucial for both sides to achieve substantive agreements on such issues this week.
"There needs to be enough substance in the discussion on Kashmir so that the Pakistani government will continue to believe that it is worth its while to keep infiltration under control and to keep the dialogue process going. On the Indian side, they're going to be looking to see if infiltration starts up again after the snows melt in May or June. It's going to be important for them to actually try to find some substantive ways of talking about Kashmir, even before they've had a chance to gauge what will happen when the snow melts, because if they wait until then, I think the likelihood of the peace process breaking down is very great and you'll never get a chance to see if it'll get anywhere," Schaffer said.
Pakistan's former foreign secretary, Tanveer Ahmed Khan, says he thinks both governments are approaching the talks with "a new vision of reality" -- that the use of force will never resolve the Kashmir dispute.
"There are expectations in India and Pakistan and abroad that this time there will be some progress. And I think it is a decisive milestone, perhaps, in the evolution of relations between India and Pakistan -- which, for most of the time in the last half a century, have been characterized by acrimony, by confrontation, by actual wars. So we are witnessing, possibly, a very important development in this part of the world," Khan said.
Indeed, Islamabad has signaled that it is ready to drop its demand for a United Nations-mandated plebiscite allowing Kashmiris to decide for themselves if the Indian-administered part of their region should stay with India or join Pakistan. Islamabad no longer advocates the idea of an independent Kashmir.
New Delhi considers all of Kashmir to be an integral part of India. But last month, Indian officials indicated growing flexibility by meeting with moderates in Kashmir's main separatist alliance -- the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference. New Delhi previously had shunned the conglomerate of Kashmiri separatist groups.
Nevertheless, separatist groups like the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front have launched hunger strikes in the past week to protest the absence of any Kashmiris at the negotiating table.
Maulana Abbas Ansari, chairman of All Parties Hurriyat Conference, says Kashmiris should join negotiations after Indian and Pakistani delegates build an environment of trust.
"Unless there is trust between these two countries, the Kashmir issue cannot be resolved. So it is very necessary for this. First of all, there should be an atmosphere of trust. We are ready to go to the extent that first Pakistan and India talk to each other and build trust so that Kashmiris on both sides can meet each other. After that, let them reach a point where Kashmiris can participate in the decision regarding Kashmir. If the Kashmiris are not allowed in the talks, then the talks cannot be fruitful," Ansari said.
In Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian-administered state of Jammu-Kashmir, ordinary citizens like Ghulam Rasool Dar appear happy about this week's talks.
"This is a very good step which has been taken by both sides. Most importantly, people are very happy [about the start of talks] and they want peace. We will pray to God that something comes out of these talks so that peace is restored in the valley," Rasool said.
Many residents of New Delhi and Islamabad also have expressed optimism about the peace process. But some residents of Islamabad are doubtful. Among them is Ehsan Khan, a student of defense and strategic issues in Islamabad.
"I think that the whole thing is based on shifting sands. Nothing will stand. And history is a witness to this reality," Khan said.
The dispute over Kashmir has triggered two wars between India and Pakistan since independence from British colonial rule in 1947. The issue also brought the nuclear-capable rivals to the brink of a third war in 2002.