India and Pakistan began a new round of horse-trading this week to resolve one of the world’s longest unresolved international conflicts: control over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Combined with last week’s announcement of the first cease-fire since 1989 along the volatile “Line of Control” that separates the Indian and Pakistani sectors of Kashmir, this newest round of negotiations pivots around the re-establishment of transportation links between the neighboring states. Following Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s announcement that Pakistan would permit the restoration of flights to India and permit Indian airliners to fly over its landmass, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee reciprocated the gesture Monday.
The Hindu suggested these maneuverings are a prelude to more significant reforms: “The accord on air travel has set the tone for purposeful discussions on restarting the Samjhauta Express [train link] and generated some momentum behind proposals for a ferry service between Mumbai and Karachi and a rail or road link between Sindh and Rajasthan.” Momentum toward additional agreements may be growing, as the Press Times of Indiawire service reported that the Indian and Pakistani governments have agreed to hammer out the details surrounding the restoration of railroad traffic between the countries in a series of technical meetings slated for Dec. 18 and 19. According to the BBC, the Indian foreign ministry officially confirmed Thursday that Vajpayee will travel to Pakistan for a regional summit in January.
Papers on both sides of the LoC discerned signs of a potential economic windfall. The Daily Times observed, rather emphatically, that “the news of the opening of air travel was greeted by the Karachi stock exchange with record activity on a single day in the life of the market!” The Indian Express posited that “the end of the overflight ban will benefit New Delhi more than Pakistan, since most of its flights—110 flights a week to the Gulf, to Europe and to the US—needed to fly through Pakistani airspace.”
Both the Statesman of Calcutta and the Times of India took their government to task for its original decision to sever transportation ties following the Dec. 13, 2001, terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament. The Statesman declared, “[I]t was the average citizen who suffered: people had to undertake longer flying hours to more distant destinations which meant a lot of inconvenience.” The ToI opined that “when India cut off all air, road and rail links with Pakistan … it did so more in a fit of pique than out of any well-considered policy initiative. India unwisely linked the resumption of flights to the ending of cross-border terrorism, a linkage it could not itself sustain.”
Despite the moderately upbeat coverage, the papers report some serious sticking points that could trip up a lasting peace. One problem that just won’t seem to go away: Musharraf’s lack of political legitimacy. Pakistan’s Nation noted the concerns of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party and quoted a party representative’s observation that “General Musharraf is a self-nominated, non-elected and illegitimate President, and he has no mandate to take decision[s] on any national issue, including the Kashmir problem. Only Parliament has the authority to take such decisions.” A Times of India op-ed surrounded the phrase “peace offer” with sneer quotes and questioned Musharraf’s sincerity and commitment to peace: “More important, Musharraf, who insisted he wanted to be India’s partner for peace, mocked its repeated charges about cross-border infiltration.” In a separate editorial, headlined “Pervez’s Double Game,” the paper bluntly declared, “No one expects Pakistan fully to turn off the tap of terrorism.” But the criticism is not reserved solely for Musharraf. Lahore’s Daily Times looked to the head of government * across the LoC and predicted that electoral pressures could derail peace efforts: “Vajpayee’s party is facing elections next year and may be relying on its anti-Pakistan slogans to win more votes than its main rival.”
The prospect of soothing the Kashmiri flashpoint prompted comment from publications across Asia. The Japan Times took a skeptical attitude to the cease-fire in Kashmir, claiming “it is likely to be more symbolic than substantive.” But the paper was bullish on other confidence-building measures, noting that the “resumption of bus, ferry and aviation links would help the two countries build better understanding as well as encourage trade and business links that could provide a foundation for a deeper relationship.” China View hoped “that the rigid relations between the two countries have started to improve at a fast pace, which can pave the way for a possible summit meeting between the leaders of India and Pakistan on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation … summit scheduled next month in Islamabad.” Singapore’s Straits Times published an evenhanded op-ed that found cause “for rejoicing at the cessation of hostilities,” while ultimately maintaining that “nothing suggests that either government is reviewing its fundamental stand on bilateral issues.”
One element that received surprisingly scant attention is the reaction of Kashmiri militants to the peace overtures. According to the Nation, a spokesman for the largest militant group active in Kashmir, Hizbul Mujahideen, said the group would refuse to abide by the terms of the cease-fire. “In the absence of a permanent solution to the festering issue, all such steps will prove to be cosmetic and transitory.” Despite the cease-fire, thePress Trust of India reported that separatist violence is still raging in Kashmir. A grenade attack in Anantnag Tuesday left 21 injured, including 18 police officers. Agence France Presse offered a sobering assessment of life in the territory, revealing that, as of Wednesday, at least 42 individuals have been killed in political violence since the start of the cease-fire on Nov. 25.
On a happier note, the Times of India told the story of two Pakistani brothers who crossed into Indian-controlled Kashmir after the cease-fire began. Under normal circumstances, the pair would likely have been arrested or shot, but in this case Indian soldiers escorted the boys across the LoC and peacefully handed them over to Pakistani forces. The intrepid duo told the paper that the “Indian soldiers treated us well, with good food and showered affection. It is absolutely false that they beat and kill Pakistanis.”
Correction, Dec. 4, 2003: This piece originally referred to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee as India’s head of state. In fact, Vajpayee is the head of government; President Abdul Kalam is the head of the state. ( Return to corrected sentence.)