In the wake of the first-time visit of the Kashmiri separatist leadership to Pakistani-controlled Kashmir and Islamabad, leaders of India and Pakistan are optimist about future peace in the disputed Himalayan region.
Most observers say overtures of peace from Islamabad and New Delhi have been optimistic and unmistakably bold. Last week a reporter asked Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf whether a final resolution is possible within two years. He said peace could come even sooner. “I think it can be resolved in two weeks if there is a will, and we sit down and discuss the options. The most important thing is for the leadership to have the will to reach a conclusion. And I see that at this moment, the leadership does have the desire and the will.”
On the Indian side, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for a Kashmiri glacier considered to be the world's highest battlefield to be turned into a "peace mountain." He said both countries were exploring the possibility of pulling their troops out of the frozen wasteland.
Many scholars say the most striking development is the recent consideration given by India and Pakistan to a voice often lost amid the violence of the decades-old conflict, that of the Kashmiris.
Abdul Ghani Bhat is a member of the All-Party Hurriyat Conference, a Kashmiri resistance group located in India-controlled Kashmir that made their first-ever visit to Pakistan. India began formal discussions with the group in 2003. Mr. Bhat said that any lasting settlement must be made with Kashmiris at the negotiating table. “You cannot wish us away. If you want to lend credibility to the dialogue process with reference to Kashmir, you have to involve the people who represent the sentiment rooted deep into the soul of Kashmir. India has to talk to us, no doubt about it. Pakistan has to talk to us, no doubt about it. They cannot work out what they call an acceptable solution, unless they take us into confidence.
The separatists described the visit as a major success and the first step in involving Kashmiris in the peace process.
Kashmir has been claimed by India and Pakistan since the partition of the subcontinent in
1947. Kashmir was one of many princely states that had the choice of joining Pakistan or Indian after the partition. But Kashmir's ruler delayed a decision in hopes of remaining independent. When Pakistani-backed tribesmen invaded Kashmir, the ruler ceded to India under the condition that a plebiscite would be held allowing Kashmiris to vote on their future. That vote never took place.
India and Pakistan have twice waged war -- in the late 1940s and again in the 1960s -- over the disputed land. Today, the territory remains divided by a Line of Control. The Indian side is home to about 9 illion people while about 3 million live in the northern part administered by Pakistan. About the size of the US state of Georgia, the region sits atop the world in the strategic Himalayan Mountains.
Bloodshed in Kashmir increased dramatically in 1989 when popular discontent with Indian rule led to a violent Muslim separatist movement. The insurgency has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Many analysts say divisions within the Kashmiri separatist leadership have made talks with India difficult. Some Kashmiri separatists favor independence; others want mostly Muslim Kashmir to merge with Pakistan.
Ashley Tellis, a military analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here in Washington, says the moderate elements of the Hurriyat are ready to consider other solutions beyond outright independence as the only option. He adds that India's decision to let the group travel to Pakistani-controlled Kashmir is an important element of change. “The Hurriyat, by and large, seems to have come onto the peace bandwagon. The opportunity that the Hurriyat has had to travel to Pakistani-controlled Kashmir and to Pakistan, to re-build bonds of solidarity is fundamentally important for a potential settlement over Kashmir.”
Many Kashmiris around the world are cautiously optimistic about the latest steps toward peace. Krystle Kaul, a 20-year-old Kashmiri-American studying conflict resolution here in Washington, says Kashmiris feel caught between two giants [India and Pakistan] and are unable to decide their own fate. She stresses that terrorists carrying out attacks in Kashmir must be reined in before lasting peace can be achieved. “The efforts being made by India and Pakistan are absolutely fantastic, however, Kashmir has been a pending issue for years and as much as I think right now that India and Pakistan want peace and to resolve this conflict, another factor is the terrorists who do not want peace and have their absolute terms.”
Rajan Menon, a South Asia scholar at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, says “things are at a delicate stage and a massive bomb attack by a terrorist group could really set this back.” He stresses that Kashmiri hardliners supporting these terrorist groups fighting for independence must be brought into the fold by moderate Kashmiris. But he says it is not clear whether the Hurriyat can sustain that momentum because terrorist groups in the past have also targeted Kashmir leaders who have attempted to talk peace with India.
He adds that a Kashmir peace settlement would help reconcile longstanding differences between India and Pakistan. “I think this is the centerpiece and everything else will fall into place much more easily. It will expand the scope for intergovernmental cooperation, expanding trade and tourism. There are people on both sides that will want this. I think all the signs are hopeful.”
Professor Menon says that five decades of India-Pakistan rivalry have prevented both countries from realizing their economic potential. But Ashley Tellis of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says Pakistan has more at stake. “There is an understanding in Pakistan today that if peace does not come about then Pakistan's economic modernatizion and all its dreams of becoming a moderate Muslim state are going to be imperiled. It needs to have peace and a normal trading relationship with India in order to focus away from defense and security and more toward internal reform and political modernatizion.”
Most observers agree the climate for a peace settlement on Kashmir is favorable, at least for the moment. They say if Kashmiri militants lay down arms to join the peace process and a triangular dialogue between India, Pakistan and Kashmiris continues, chances are higher for achieving a lasting peace on the subcontinent.