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Some Political Leaders Say Opportunity for Rapprochement After Quake in Kashmir Wasted

  • Patricia Nunan

Six months after the deadly earthquake that struck both the Pakistani and Indian sides of Kashmir, some political leaders say the opportunity the tragedy created to help the two sides move closer to peace has been wasted. VOA's Patricia Nunan reports from Srinigar, in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

The October 8th earthquake was most devastating in the Pakistani-held section of Kashmir, the disputed border region that for nearly 60 years has been the source of tension between Pakistan and India.

The 7.6 magnitude quake killed some 3,000 on the Indian-held side. But it killed more than 70,000 in Pakistani Kashmir, and left more than two million there homeless.

The leaders of the two countries had been negotiating a careful peace process intended to help bring an end to decades of friction. The devastation in Pakistan prompted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to offer assistance to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

It was a hopeful moment. But developments that Kashmiri politicians were hoping for, to push that peace process forward, failed to materialize.

Omar Abdullah of National Conference, an Indian Kashmiri party, says that if Indian troops had been allowed to provide aid to Pakistan, it would have been an important symbolic step. Instead, aid came from NATO forces based in Afghanistan.

"Pakistan wanted our helicopters without our pilots. That was obviously something that wasn't going to happen," he said. "We had a situation where Pakistan was happier with NATO troops on the ground than Indian troops. And similarly, we didn't want any movement of people from that side into this side of Jammu and Kashmir. So the politics of mistrust had lost us an opportunity that was otherwise there for the taking."

That mistrust dates from 1947, when the British divided the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan at the time of independence. Both of the new nations claimed the predominantly Muslim border region of Kashmir.

The two nations have since fought two of their three wars over the region. Islamic insurgents have also waged a bloody 17-year separatist campaign in the part of Kashmir under Indian control.

A year ago, in another hopeful sign, the two countries reopened a bus route that, for the first time since 1947, allows Kashmiris to travel across the disputed border, reuniting families divided by the dispute.

It was one of a series of so-called "confidence-building measures" to help ease tensions and pave the way for eventual resolution of the entire conflict.

Many political leaders hailed the bus as a good first step, but hoped it would lead to a more extensive opening of the disputed border, allowing Kashmiris to come and go freely. That also did not happen.

Syed Zainulabidin Shah is a retired school headmaster from the Indian side, who braved the threat of insurgent attack to take the first bus into Pakistani-held Kashmir to visit his family. When the earthquake struck six months later, he could do nothing to help.

When the earthquake happened they should have opened the border, he says, so he could go and see his sister who had been injured. But he could not go because of the restrictions.

Despite the failure to capitalize on the opportunities the earthquake presented, the two nations have recently reiterated their commitment to the peace process.

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