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|March 1, 1999||
After the détente, the tough talk
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief has threatened to suspend talks with India unless there is a deadline to resolve the Kashmir dispute.
Sharief warned that a time would come when the talks may have to be suspended in case no progress is made on Kashmir. He also asserted that "moral, political, and diplomatic support to the Kashmiris seeking self-determination would continue".
Almost simultaneously, in New Delhi, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared that India would not lose any more territory and efforts would have to be made by both sides to ensure that any agreements between them last.
The Indian external affairs ministry is not unduly perturbed by this turn of statements. "Sharief's tough talk must be seen in the context of Pakistan's domestic audience. We see it more as a response to the Pakistani opposition party," a source said.
Former foreign secretary J N Dixit endorsed this view. "While statements issued by the respective premiers must be taken seriously, the declarations by both Sharief and Vajpayee were not unexpected," he said.
When Vajpayee visited Pakistani, driving down from Amritsar across the border at Wagah, the Jamaat-e-Islami, a right-wing Pakistani party, had organised a general strike in Lahore. The Jamaat insists that the Kashmir issue must be resolved before India and Pakistan work for better ties with each other.
Sharief is quite aware of the mischief the right-wing parties can cause using the Kashmir card, an emotive issue he himself has used in the past, most notably in 1989 when the late Rajiv Gandhi visited Islamabad for a summit with Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Bhutto had refused to refer to the Kashmir dispute either in her talks with Gandhi or in her statements to the Pakistani people. Sharief had then raised the ante, accusing Bhutto of selling out on Kashmir. The uproar saw her lose the election that followed.
Against this backdrop, Sharief can scarcely be seen to be negotiating with India without referring to the Kashmir dispute.
"We must make allowance for such statements. After all, the Pakistani premier has to carry his people with him and for that, he has to ensure that the opposition parties do not allege that he has sold out to India," Dixit said.
An official in the Pakistani high commission in New Delhi said there is nothing new or wrong in what Sharief has said. "The Lahore Declaration categorically stated that India and Pakistan must work together to resolve the Kashmir dispute. It is an issue that has to be settled for better relations between the two countries. Sharief only reiterated that point," he said.
Yet, there is concern that the statements from the two premiers might also be a sign that Indo-Pak relations are descending from the high witnessed when Vajpayee took the bus to Lahore. "Resolving India-Pakistan ties is a long process, and it is always better to exchange words than nuclear bombs," said Dixit.
He agreed that if both Pakistan and India mean what their prime ministers just said -- that 'Kashmir must be resolved' and 'no further territory will be lost' -- then diplomatic relations can only take a turn for the worse. "Then we can forget about improving ties for the next 100 years," he said.
Still, he is optimistic. "These are public postures," he said. "Once talks start, I expect both sides to come to some sort of understanding, even on Kashmir."
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