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Renewed Hope for Peace in South Asia - 2003-05-21


After months of aggressive rhetoric, initiatives by both India and Pakistan have given rise to fresh hopes for peace between the south Asian neighbors. Many analysts caution there is still a long way to go yet before peace is achieved but they agree that the situation is far better than it was last year when the two countries were at the brink of war.

On May second, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee announced unexpectedly that he was launching a "decisive and conclusive dialogue" aimed at ending decades of hostility between his country and Pakistan.

Pakistan's Prime Minister, Zafarullah Jamali, quickly responded with encouraging words and a proposed summit in Islamabad. Transport links and diplomatic ties were restored. Pakistan released Indian prisoners and gave the newly freed men traditional Indian sweets wrapped in green, Pakistan's national color.

Press Attaché of the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington, Asad Hayauddin, says he's optimistic about the future of the often tense relationship. "I will just compress everything into a time capsule. The Musharraf government since October 1999 has said it is ready for dialogue at any level, any place and any time. The closest we came to that was in July 2001 at the Agra summit that unfortunately fell apart. Unfortunately, after the attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, things came to a standstill. We have been on the record from day one requesting on any level, let's talk. And basically, nearly 18 months since our request [after the terrorist attacks on the Indian parliament], the India government has responded. We are optimistic and grateful for that."

Sunil Lal, the Press Counselor at the Indian Embassy in Washington, says the present atmosphere is beneficial to negotiations. "There is always a good time for peace. No time is a bad time in that sense. India has always wanted peace. It was a statesman-like gesture on the part of Prime Minister Vajpayee. He has tried twice before, in 1999 at Lahore, 2001 at Agra. Unfortunately, these didn't bear fruit. It took great courage on the part of our Prime Minister to come up with this initiative. I think he genuinely wants peace."

The move by Prime Minister Vajpayee surprised many in India. He consulted few cabinet colleagues before his declaration of the latest peace effort to a skeptical Indian public. Observers say his trip to Kashmir last month foreshadowed his initiative. He became the first Indian Prime Minister since 1989 to visit the disputed Himalayan territory claimed by both countries. Indian officials say the warm reception he received from Kashmiris during his stay truly touched him.

Pakistan's Asad Hayauddin believes events on the ground and in international diplomatic circles have changed for the better. "What has actually changed is that the nearly million troops India had deployed after December 2001 have been recalled to their peacetime locations. In June of last year, President Musharraf gave a commitment to visiting Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage that Pakistani land would not be used for any kind of terrorist activity and we stuck to that."

Sunil Lal of the Indian embassy notes that the two nations now have a chance to make progress towards a new relationship. "The Jammu-Kashmir peace process is now moving forward. There is an increasing recognition that terrorism has no place in modern society. The main issue now is to end cross-border terrorism, for which we have a pledge from Pakistan. If they can uphold that pledge we would have a good basis to move forward."

Given the fact that both countries are nuclear powers and nearly waged war for a fourth time last year, there is a certain degree of worry in the world of a possible nuclear exchange. Should external actors have any role in facilitating peace? And if so, who should play those roles?

India's Sunil Lal believes outside actors are not necessary. "If we are sincere about peace, it can easily come from within. We do not believe that any outside actor is required. India and Pakistan speak the same language. We understand each other really well. We do not believe there is any real need for any involvement from outside."

But Asad Hayauddin of the embassy of Pakistan believes third parties are not only helpful, but essential. "The United States, being the premier global power, has equal influence on India and Pakistan. And both India and Pakistan trust the United States. The United States has to make sure that both parties are willing and able. The United States has to use its influence with both to come to the negotiation table. America has to play a facilitating role. As a mutual friend between two friends, it makes sense for the United States to nudge both neighbors to move and talk."

Despite the apparent thaw in relations, history suggests that pitfalls may lay ahead. Mr. Hayauddin of the embassy of Pakistan thinks that to avoid such roadblocks, no preconditions should be imposed on state-to-state negotiations. "I think if the Indian government is willing to negotiate in good faith that would be the best. I understand that Prime Minister Vajpayee would like to have a legacy of peace. Pakistan would like to reciprocate and Prime Minister Jamali and President Musharraf have warmly accepted his offer. But it has to be unconditional, there should be no preconditions that Pakistan must first do this and then we will do that. In order to sit down and talk, the only condition must be willing to sit down and talk, and that is what Pakistan is able and willing to do."

Mr. Lal of the Indian embassy thinks talks between India and Pakistan could be aided if the two nations embark on what diplomats call 'confidence building measures' -- trade, face-to-face contacts, and a resulting sense of trust. But he still worries about Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. "We should go slow but at the same time achieve substantial progress through sheer hard work on the ground. I am talking about economic trade, people-to-people contact. There are many good ways to build trust. Once that trust is built, then you have a conducive atmosphere. What is the need of the hour is for Pakistan to be an economically stable country, a genuine democracy, and automatically the threat of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands would reduce. You need a period where both sides have peace and both sides have a calm and conducive atmosphere. Without that, I don't think you can build a relationship. That is what is required and it will take time. We should not be deterred by minor pitfalls. I am sure many would come down the way We would like that India and Pakistan live in peace because it is for the prosperity and progress of the people."

Behind-the-scenes activity in both New Delhi and Islamabad indicates that both sides are currently in the mood to negotiate. But observers say the recent increase in violence in India-controlled Kashmir may hamper talks which diplomats hope will eventually reach a complete settlement in the disputed territory and a new day in South Asia.

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