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South Asia: Analysts See Kashmir Talks As First Step In Long Process

A round of peace talks just completed by the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan is being welcomed on the Asian subcontinent as a good first step toward reconciling the differences between the nuclear-capable neighbors. But as RFE/RL reports, experts in both countries say the two sides will have to remain committed to a spirit of compromise over the disputed region of Kashmir if a permanent peace settlement is to be reached.

Prague, 24 Juen 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The first direct talks on Kashmir in more than three years between senior officials from Pakistan and India have raised hopes in both countries that a permanent settlement could be in the works.

Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna described the meetings on 27-28 June between the two foreign ministers as fruitful. "They discussed the subject of peace and security including confidence-building measures. Ideas and proposals were exchanged to take the process further. Discussions were held in a positive and constructive atmosphere," Sarna said.

A joint statement issued yesterday at the end of the talks in New Delhi also was positive in tone. It said both sides hope their dialogue will lead to a peaceful settlement of all bilateral issues -- including Kashmir. The foreign ministers pledged to continue what they called a "sustained and serious dialogue" toward a peaceful, negotiated final settlement to the decades-old Kashmir dispute. They also announced the restoration of staff levels at their embassies in New Delhi and Islamabad and the reopening of consulates in Bombay and Karachi that have been closed since 1994.

But analysts from both Pakistan and India conclude that moving the peace process beyond the stage of mutual "confidence-building measures" will be a long and difficult process -- particularly as the focus of that process increasingly shifts to the details of the Kashmir dispute.
One group that continues to be left out of the negotiations over Kashmir for now are the people of Kashmir.

Neusheen Wasi, a research analyst at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs, told RFE/RL today that it is too early to describe developments on Kashmir as a breakthrough. "I will take my time [before declaring that] there has been a breakthrough, keeping the history of Indo-Pak reconciliatory talks in mind," she said. "In the past, we have had so many talks that resulted in good confidence-building measures. But they haven't produced anything tangible. And [Pakistan's] President [Pervez Musharraf] several times has said that nothing can be achieved on this Kashmir problem as a result. If the contentious issues are solved -- or something is achieved on that -- then these talks will prove beneficial."

Wasi concludes that unless both countries start preparing to make compromises on Kashmir, she doesn't expect a final peace settlement to emerge from the current peace initiative. "It is just to show the world that we are negotiating," she said. "Both countries are taking time, we can see. I don't think that it can really [result in] something in the future because we don't have any groundwork here [in Pakistan] -- and neither in India do I see any groundwork on how we are going to resolve our contentious issues over which the two parties differ a lot. There is no policy at all. There has not been any groundwork on what strategy we are working."

C. Uday Bhaskar, deputy director of the New Delhi-based Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, described the recent talks as "satisfactory and encouraging." But Bhaskar agrees that both sides need stamina to go through the rest of the dialogue process on Kashmir.

India and Pakistan both administer parts of Muslim-majority Kashmir. But both sides also claim the territory, in its entirety, as their own. The dispute has sparked two of the three wars between India and Pakistan during the past half century. New Delhi has accused Pakistan of fomenting an Islamic rebellion in Kashmir that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since it broke out in 1989. Islamabad rejects the allegation, but calls the rebellion a "freedom struggle."

One key difference between this week's talks and earlier meetings is that the latest negotiations involve officials from the new Congress Party-led Indian government, which took office in New Delhi five weeks ago.

India's former ambassador to Pakistan, G. Parthasarthy, said the tenor of this week's meetings were positive compared to previous talks that he described as "sharp and negative." Parthasarthy concludes that a new atmosphere has been created that allows both sides to discuss Kashmir and still take steps to reduce tensions and enhance cooperation.

One group that continues to be left out of the negotiations over Kashmir for now are the people of Kashmir.

Moulvi Abbas Ansari, chairman of Indian-administered Kashmir's main separatist alliance, insists that Kashmiris also must take part in the process for a settlement to have any practical impact on the ground. "If [India and Pakistan] include the issue of Kashmir and the people of Kashmir in the talks, then we will welcome and accept the dialogue process. If they have to make this a bilateral process only, then no matter how much they talk, what level they talk, it will not be fruitful for the Kashmiris, and they will oppose it," Ansari said.

India's largest-circulation daily, the English-language "The Times of India," agrees with Ansari in an editorial published today. The Mumbai (Bombay)-based newspaper says Kashmiri militants and separatists should now be brought into the peace process.