That the situation in Kashmir is now on a short fuse is no longer in doubt. In fact, the fuse cannot be any shorter. With another round of India-Pakistan talks scheduled later this month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session, there should be a clear realization of the explosive situation in the disputed state.
Two senior leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) who were on a tour of the south Indian states last week warned against any further procrastination by New Delhi in seeking a solution of the Kashmir problem. On August 31, they told reporters in Hyderabad that the situation in Kashmir had reached "a critical state" and could soon become uncontrollable. They also warned against Indian complacency, pointing out that while New Delhi liked to believe that there was no problem in Kashmir, the fact was that there was not a single Kashmiri family which was not affected there.
Indian media itself does not make a secret of the fact that there has been an alarming deterioration in the situation since the breakdown of the India-Pakistan talks in Agra. Reports emanating from Delhi say that there were as many as 96 deaths within one week in the wake of the Agra summit. The widely respected political analyst, Tavleen Singh, even while expressing scepticism about Pakistan's claim that it was not involved in cross-border terrorism, regretted that the Indian security forces themselves sometimes behaved "no better than terrorists."
However, New Delhi has chosen to further empower the security forces operating in the occupied state by giving it certain emergency powers.
New Delhi's reluctance to involve the APHC in the search for a solution of the Kashmir problem is difficult to understand. The APHC represents over 20 groups. By sidelining the APHC New Delhi is allowing the initiative for resolving the dispute to pass into the hands of extremist elements, such as the Lashkar-i-Jabbar which was not even heard of until quite recently but is making its presence increasingly felt by militant means. They seem to be guided by a Taliban-like zeal for imposing on the people their own version of the Islamic code of personal and public conduct.
In their forthcoming meeting in New York the Indian prime minister and President Musharraf will have an opportunity to work out a realistic framework for the resolution of the Kashmir issue and set a new peace and tone for India-Pakistan relations. Going by the assessment of the seasoned India-Pakistan watcher and columnist, Kuldip Nayar, based on his 'informal chat' with Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee following the Agra summit, there is room for optimism regarding the prospects of New York talks.
According to Nayar, the Indian prime minister had remained in contact with Gen Pervez Musharraf even after the Agra summit failed to produce any concrete results. Mr Vajpayee told Nayar: "My contact with President Pervez Musharraf was never broken" - something that the Indian and Pakistani diplomats based in each other's capitals apparently were not quite aware of. It is reassuring to learn from Nayar that Mr Vajpayee's trust in the Pakistani president's liberalism "remains unshaken."
In contrast, many of the Indian statements immediately after the Agra summit were quite acrimonious intended to blame Pakistan for the failure of the summit. Somewhat different in tone and quality is the recent Indian statement that the talks in New York could "pick up the thread" from where it had been left off at Agra. It is just as well that there is going to be no structured agenda for New York talks and no prior meetings between the officials of the two countries. Bureaucrats tend to function within grooves of accustomed thinking, while the political leadership can take a broader view of things and even examine new ideas and approaches in trying to move the process of dialogue forward.
Prior to the New York meeting, a new flexibility seems to mark the positions of the two countries as to the scope of the talks ahead. For its part, if India has agreed to discuss all issues of contention between the two countries, including Kashmir, Pakistan has reciprocated by making it known that while it regards Kashmir as being "at the heart of the tensions between the two countries", other issues could also be taken up by the two sides simultaneously. This suggests that henceforth Pakistan would not insist that Kashmir be resolved first before anything else could be taken up. A foreign office spokesman was quite categorical in saying that "progress on other issues could be made in tandem with the Kashmir issue."
There is a section of opinion in Pakistan which favours peace and normalization talks to focus on broad spectrum of bilateral relations. This could cover trade, travel, visa formalities and cultural exchanges. Such an approach could create a conductive atmosphere for resolving the Kashmir problem as well. It stands to reason that the Kashmir issue which has been there for more than fifty years cannot be resolved through one or two summit meetings. A major factor is that the genuine representatives of the Kashmiri people have to be involved in the process so that whatever the solution arrived at finally enjoys the support of all important sections of the Kashmiris.
The format of the summit-level talks in New York is not yet known. However, it would be a good starting point for both sides to agree that in future there would be no resort to war for settling any bilateral disputes and that there would be reciprocal restraint in relation to their nuclear arms programmes. In the interest of resolving the Kashmir dispute there has also to be a clear understanding on the demilitarization of both parts of the disputed state.
It is obvious that a problem that has been festering for more than fifty years cannot be resolved easily. More than one or two summit meetings would be needed to unscramble the complicated situation. All the same while meeting in New York, the leaders of the two sides should decides not to give up until a mutually acceptable solution has been found. At the same time, efforts should be made to resolve the other bilateral problems, including Siachen, the Wullar Barrage, Sir Creek and most certainly, ease the existing restrictions on trade, travel, visa and other consular activity, and provide for cultural and intellectual exchanges.
It is pertinent to recall that the participants in two pre-Agra summit seminars in New Delhi, including scholars, political scientists, leaders of business and industry from both countries, strongly felt that urgent steps were needed in working out a basis for bilateral cooperation in almost all fields.
Indian High Commissioner Vijay Nambiar's observation at a recent gathering in Karachi that it was necessary to proceed on the many promises and adopt the approach of 'going from the easy to the difficult ones' merits serious consideration in both New Delhi and Islamabad.
Regardless of the pace of progress, the peace process must go on. The people of India and Pakistan should not be made to suffer an endless trauma of hope and despair.
Modified version of an article published in Pakistan newspaper Dawn.