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India, Pakistan Marked 2002 With Months of Tension - 2002-12-18


The year 2002 was a year of tension between India and Pakistan. Relations between South Asia's two nuclear neighbors soured to the point where, at one point, war seemed inevitable. Intense diplomatic efforts prevented war, but, at year's end, there is no sign either country is prepared to take the difficult steps necessary for a lasting peace in the region.

In January, Buddhist prayers for peace opened the regional SAARC or South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit of South Asian leaders in Nepal. It was the first time the leaders of India and Pakistan had met since terrorists attacked the Indian parliament, one month earlier. In recent years, relations between India and Pakistan had rarely been worse.

Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, made the first effort to ease tensions, extending his hand to Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Mr. Vajpayee accepted the handshake, but said he wanted more from Pakistan.

"I am glad that President Musharraf extended a hand of friendship to me. I have shaken his hand in your presence," he said. "Now, President Musharraf must follow-up this gesture by not permitting any activity in Pakistan, or in any territory in its control today, which enables terrorists to perpetuate mindless violence in India."

Indian officials blamed Pakistan-based militants, who support separatism in Indian Kashmir, for the parliament attack. Pakistani officials angrily denied any connection. In Nepal, General Musharraf pledged to ease tensions.

"My government remains ready to engage in a serious and sustained dialogue with India, at all times and at all levels," he said. "Peace and tranquility between Pakistan and India are essential for progress in South Asia."

General Musharraf followed up his pledge with action, banning a host of militant groups active in Indian-administered Kashmir and pledging not to permit the use of Pakistan-controlled territory for terrorism against India. Indian officials gave a cautious welcome to the measures and tensions seemed to ease.

The calm was not to last.

In May, suspected separatist militants attacked an army base in Indian-administered Kashmir, killing scores of women and children, dependents of the troops based there. On a visit to Kashmir, following the attack, Prime Minister Vajpayee threatened retaliation against Pakistan. Western diplomats, including U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, rushed to New Delhi and Islamabad to try to defuse the crisis.

"I think, where tensions are high and troops face each other, there is always the risk of war and, until that situation is changed, there will be the risk," he said. "But, I think at the present time we are just trying to manage things and bring down the tensions and temperature a little bit, so that people of goodwill, on both sides of this question, can live prosperous lives.

American officials extracted a pledge from Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf that he would work to halt all cross-border infiltration into Indian Kashmir. Indian officials pledged to take a wait-and-see attitude, but soon said that infiltration had, indeed, been curbed. Indian navy ships, on war station in the Arabian Sea, returned to port and Indian officials lifted a ban on Pakistan civilian aircraft overflying Indian territory.

Several months later, voters in Indian Kashmir went to the polls, in much-anticipated state assembly elections. Foreign diplomats monitored the vote and called the elections free and fair. Despite separatist calls for a boycott, many Kashmiris went to the polls. Forty-six percent of eligible voters cast their ballots, allowing Indian officials to say their commitment to giving Kashmiris a political voice was having a real effect on easing tensions in Kashmir. Following the conclusion of the elections, India announced it was pulling its troops back from the border with Pakistan.

On a visit to New Delhi, South Asia expert Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said India achieved virtually all of its diplomatic objectives.

"We were close to war. But, on the other hand, it was in India's interest to make people believe we were close to a war," he said. "The Indian strategy was to create the appearance of being on the edge of war, so that the U.S. would put pressure on Pakistan and that Pakistan would, in turn, ease up on some of its support for cross-border terrorism. Now, the Pakistanis have pledged they would do this to the Americans, the question is holding the Pakistanis to this pledge and, from the Pakistani perspective, this [cross-border infiltrations] is one of the few instruments that they have to get the Indians to the bargaining table. So, I think the ball is now in India's court, in terms of coming up with ideas for a political dialogue which might eventually lead to some sort of resolution or at least a diminution of the Kashmir conflict."

As tensions eased senior American officials, such as U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill, said both countries should take the next step and engage in dialogue.

We continue to believe that a resumption of serious dialogue between India and Pakistan, over the long term, sustained and serious on all the issues that separate them, including Kashmir, is a good idea. We just think that, as India and Pakistan face these differences, we think talking about them in a serious way is better than not talking about them in a serious way.

But Indian officials remained wary of dialogue with Islamabad. They said, despite Pakistans pledges to halt infiltration across the line of control in Kashmir, separatist militants were continuing to cross into their territory and carry out terrrorist attacks.

Indian officials also criticized U.S. officials, saying the United States condemned and fought terrorism around the world, but ignored India's concerns over terrorism, because of a need to work with Pakistan to fight the remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida.

So, despite pulling their troops back from their common border, relations between India and Pakistan remained frozen in a South Asian cold war.

Things did not improve, when, in December, Indian officials refused to confirm whether they would attend the next regional SAARC summit of South Asian leaders, scheduled for Islamabad in January.

Citing procedural rules, Pakistani officials promptly cancelled the summit, ensuring that, for the forseeable future, there would be no handshakes or dialogue between the leaders of Pakistan and India.

Part of VOA's yearend series.