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India/Pakistan: Role Of Public Sentiment In Relations Thaw Noted At Conference

Growing sentiment for a peaceful solution to the 58-year-old Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan brought together scholars, diplomats, and peace activists at a conference in New York last week. Many are encouraged by what are seen as the most serious talks between the two countries -- India and Pakistan -- in more than 40 years to resolve their dispute over Kashmir. Participants noted that both countries are nuclear powers, have started a peace process, and are working toward normalizing relations. The challenge, they say, is to put pressure on the governments to continue their work.

New York, 28 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The issue of the disputed ethnically and religiously divided territory of Kashmir has dominated India-Pakistan relations since the countries were established in 1947.

India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir and as recently as 2002 were engaged in a tense standoff. But many sense that for the first time in more than 40 years Islamabad and New Delhi are signaling a determination to find a diplomatic solution.

More than 250 people, including diplomats, political experts, and peace activists gathered in New York last week to discuss the advances made and the challenges ahead in the Kashmir dispute.

Pakistan’s UN ambassador, Munir Akram, told the conference that a significant factor building momentum for a peaceful solution in Kashmir is the public mood in each country.

“First and foremost is the popular sentiment in favor of peace and normal relations between Pakistan and India. And this has emerged not only as a result of people-to-people contacts but perhaps even more so from the revolution in the media which has enabled the people of Pakistan and India to interact and see each other much more closely,” Akram said.

Previous fighting between India and Pakistan has left about two-thirds of the territory under the control of India, including Jammu and the valley of Kashmir. The other one-third is under the control of Pakistan, including "Azad" ("free") Kashmir and the “Northern Areas.”

India has sought to gain control of the whole of Kashmir. Pakistan wants the mainly Muslim Kashmiris to decide in a plebiscite whether to join Pakistan or India. Some militant groups want to reunite the different parts of Kashmir as an independent state, something that is rejected by both India and Pakistan.

Participants in the New York conference saw the recent agreement between India and Pakistan to resume regular bus service in April from Muzaffarbad to Srinagar -- the respective capitals of the divided Kashmir -- as a major breakthrough. The agreement will allow thousands of Kashmiri families to be reunited for the first time since the territory was split almost 60 years ago.

Another conference speaker was Dennis Kux, a former U.S. State Department specialist on South Asia and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He emphasized that India and Pakistan have started a peace process and are working toward normalization but that the challenge now is to press the governments to keep it going.

“In terms of public opinion [what] is increasingly important in both countries is to press the governments to keep it going…. You get a process going, as I said, but you’ve got to keep it going. And in order to keep it going you have to have agreements. While in the past you’ve had agreements in principle but nothing concrete, and now you have something concrete, and that’s the bus agreement, that’s something new,” Kux said.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri said last week on a trip to Japan that there has not been much progress on substantive issues but that there has been progress on people-to-people contacts and that communications between the divided parts are much better.

The chairman of Pakistan’s Senate Foreign Relations and Kashmir Relations Committee, Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed, told the New York conference that the stakes in Kashmir are very high for both countries. He said that it has been realized on both sides that no military solution is possible because of the nuclear factor.

“A recognition that the human element of the Kashmiri people has to be resolved, has to be taken into consideration before we move on to the political side. So when you talk of all possible options, you’re thinking outside the box, you’re talking about all possible options. They are not limited by notions of sovereignty or territoriality of the [cease-fire line],” Hussain said.

There was no official representation from India at the conference. India’s Permanent Mission to the UN and India’s embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to RFE/RL’s repeated inquiries for comment.

Dileep Padgoanker, consulting editor of the “Times of India,” a daily published in New Delhi, said that among the significant issues is the alienation of a substantial part of the Kashmiri population from India.

He said there are major divisions among the various groups throughout the territory.

“There are huge divides, big gaps between various [political] groups in Kashmir. Many of the leaders are not on speaking terms with one another let alone any kind of dialogue between the electoral representatives in the state and the others. So some mechanism will have to be found out to see whether a consensus emerges,” Padgoanker said.

Some speakers at the conference discussed the possibility that India may find it advantageous to drag on the talks over Kashmir and maintain the status quo. But it was also noted that India’s desire to accelerate its economic output in the next decade could be hampered by a heavy military presence in Kashmir.

And, as long as the Kashmir issue is unresolved, other speakers said, India cannot expect strong support for its aspiration for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.