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News Analysis/ Amberish K Diwanji

Convert the Line of Control into a border

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Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee has made a remarkable and historic journey. He has travelled merely 800 kilometres (less than from Delhi to Bombay), but he has covered a huge distance. Seeking to dramatically improve Indo-Pakistani relations, Vajpayee met his Pakistan counterpart, Nawaz Sharief, at Wagah and later in Lahore.

The first Indian prime minister to visit Pakistan in over a decade, hopes have been raised of improvement in Indo-Pak ties, of getting over with the emotional baggage of the past 50 years.

Can one really expect much from this meeting, which appears to be more symbolic than substantive? To be very honest, no! But one can hope that better things will follow this meeting. For one, it will certainly boost cultural, economic and sporting relations between the peoples of the two countries, which can lead on to better political ties. Let us remember, international relations are too important to be left to the politicians alone! It needs people-to-people interaction.

When Rajiv Gandhi met Benazir Bhutto, much was made of the meeting between two youngsters, both of whom were considered too young to remember the horrors of Partition, both allegedly having a fresh outlook and new mindset. Yet, it was slightly after their meeting that Kashmir began to burn while both these premiers lost office.

It has often been remarked that when a leader is in trouble at home, he seeks solace in foreign policy. Bill Clinton, harangued by Monicagate, sought to resolve the ongoing Israeli-Palestine conflict, with some success. That might also be the uncharitable view of the present meeting. An Indian prime minister continuously harassed by his coalition government's allies and party affiliates in New Delhi seeking solace in Lahore!

In Pakistan, while Nawaz Sharief is comfortably entrenched, his country's economy is in a mess. Economic sanctions after the nuclear blasts in Chagai have badly hurt the country and its people. Sharief's attempt to pass the Sharia bill (which will give the government vast powers) has been stalled.

Internationally, the United States is putting pressure on both India and Pakistan to sign the nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Both nations would love to get rid of economic sanctions, and both, certainly India, would like to show itself as a responsible nuclear power to the rest of the world after going nuclear.

Yet, it must also be remembered that the breakthroughs can only occur the situation is not perfectly normal. If there is a stalemate, no one will really want to upset the apple cart. Hence, whatever the motives of the politicians and the governments, any attempt at dialogue must be welcomed. And it is to the eternal credit of Vajpayee, much maligned in recent times, that he has agreed to take the bus journey, Sharief is to be praised for inviting and welcoming him, even if the final outcome leaves much to be desired.

Herein lies the real crunch. Optimism for improved Indo-Pakistani ties are to be desired, but they cannot and will not come with merely with meetings that the media flash around the world. There are disputes that need to be settled. What makes the disputes difficult is the extremely different positions of the two sides. Between India and Pakistan, the key issue is Kashmir.

Pakistan has time and again insisted that Kashmir must be resolved for any substantive improvement. For Islamabad, this really means handing over Kashmir to Pakistan by holding a plebiscite on both sides of the Kashmir border. Both Islamabad and New Delhi have ruled out the option of independence for Kashmir, a demand by some Kashmiri.

There is no way that the Government of India, any government, will ever agree to letting Kashmir secede from India. It is something that the people of this country (or, for that matter, of any other country) will not allow. Pakistanis often point out to how Russia allowed some of its territories to secede and become independent countries. There is a crucial point here: Soviet secession occurred only when the Soviet Union collapsed. Nations and people have still not reached the maturity to allow a part of the countries' territory to secede voluntarily. Would Pakistan ever allow Pakistani Kashmir to become independent or, if by some chance they vote for it, part of India? Will Pakistan ever let Sind separate, as demand by certain outfits in that troubled province?

The only possible solution to Kashmir today is to convert the Line of Control into a border, as so often suggested by leading diplomats and strategists. After all, if Punjab and Bengal could be partitioned, surely so can Kashmir. And if ever the time should come when men are wiser, then perhaps borders will disappear. Given the state of not-really-normal relations between the two neighbours, India has every right to fear that if ever Kashmir should become part of Pakistan, rather than satiate the latter might only whet its appetite for more territory. It is still an unfortunate fact of life that we humans see glory and power in terms of territory ruled.

It is pointed out that one reason why Pakistan is keen to improve ties is that it has realised that the two countries are unlikely to have a war and that there is no military solution to Kashmir. If at all there has to be a peaceful solution to resolving the Kashmir dilemma, it can only be possible if the two countries are on good and talking terms, if they are more friends than foes, if they trust each other to some extent at least. There will never be a solution if ties are strained, save by war. Today, a war can only mean annihilation given the declared nuclear prowess of the two countries.

By permitting a direct bus between Delhi and Lahore, the government is creating the groundwork for more future interaction between the two people. And this must be extended to recreating the old railway and road links that existed till the 1965 war abruptly closed them down -- the links from Rajasthan and Kutch to Sind, perhaps a bus to Karachi, a train to Hyderabad (Sind). This in turn will develop trade links, emotional links, and perhaps even lead to a political lobby for better ties between the two countries.

Last but not the least, Vajpayee has earned his name in history for bravely seeking to improve South Asian relations. There is already talk of a direct Calcutta-Dhaka bus, and this might even lead to a link across Bangladesh up to northeast India (a long-standing request of New Delhi), the free trade pact with Sri Lanka (and which is to be followed by a similar deal with Bangladesh). What the hell, even if Vajpayee fails to deliver the goods at home or his government collapses tomorrow, he'll be remembered for some breakthrough diplomacy!

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