National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 16, 2004

Hope for peace in the subcontinent

Pakistan and India agreeing to restart formal peace talks next month is welcome news at the start of 2004. If these two neighbors, feuding for more than 50 years, can begin to resolve their differences, the world can hope that other equally intractable disputes concerning land, borders, religion and ethnicity may also be resolved.

The root of the conflict is the disputed land of Kashmir, split between the two at the time of Pakistan’s and India’s independence in 1949. A dispute over land has sparked three conventional wars, imposed decades of martial law on civilian populations and spurred a bilateral arms race that nearly came to a nuclear exchange two years ago.

Summing up the mood of ordinary folks, Delhi-based political analyst Prem Shankar Jha told the British Broadcasting Corp., “I think this time both leaders mean business. There is an awareness that time is slipping by and the changed world situation makes the cost of bickering between the subcontinental neighbors very high.”

The press of changing times does seem to be the prime motivating factor for this potential history-making advance. But three other factors contribute:

First, and the factor that will likely receive the most attention, is economic aspirations. Both countries have jealously eyed the relative calm in East and Southeast Asia that enabled the Tiger economies to emerge in the 1990s. Pakistan acutely feels the drain on national resources to sustain this stalemate. India, too, knows that unresolved conflicts with neighbors dissipate not only its coffers but its economic and political ambitions. India has long resented the rest of the world’s fascination with China. Indian business and political leaders are quick to point out their culture is as old as China’s and that it too has more than a billion citizen-consumers in its borders.

Second, according to reports from both sides of the line of control that divides the disputed Kashmir, middle and lower level soldiers are battle weary. They, better than their leaders, recognize the futility of protracted conflict.

Finally, personal ambition plays no small part in resolving this dispute. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, 77, wants to secure a place in history by ending a conflict that India’s great leaders, Mohandas K. Ghandi and Jawaharlal Nehru, could not. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in a military coup in 1999, is desperate to be seen as a legitimate democratic leader and to keep Pakistan from being labeled a “terrorist state.”

One thing the international community can do to help bring about a lasting peace is to remind these big powers that negotiations cannot be bilateral. The people who live in the Kashmir must also be included in the talks.

Initial steps to peace are likely to be small. But that is just as well. Small advances will build the confidence necessary to sustain the talks over the long haul. By all accounts, the political and civil leaders in both countries are ready to proceed. And that is the best news of all.

National Catholic Reporter, January 16, 2004

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