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Will the quake hit the peace process?

By Sheela Bhatt
October 15, 2005 05:25 IST
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The earthquake that has killed more than 40,000 people in Pakistan and India is unlikely to affect the ongoing peace process, even though hopes that the tragedy would be used to further ties have been belied.

Shared grief unites. But not when one is talking about Kashmir.

Here was a rare window of opportunity to strengthen the bonds between the two perennially squabbling nations. But Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf preferred to play it safe and predictable, and India simply underplayed.

"This was our big chance to undo some of the damage perpetrated by the Partition," says columnist and Pakistan expert Kuldip Nayar.

In the war of attrition between India and Pakistan, it seems the Kashmiris are always the losers.

The half-century old enmity stood between their life and death on October 8, when an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale hit the northern and northeastern parts of Pakistan and the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. 

A map of the epicenter, just north of Muzaffarbad (the capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir), and it's killing fields shows that India was in a much better position to launch relief and rescue operations across the border, where more than 30,000 people perished. Some 1,300 deaths were reported on the Indian side.

Muzaffarabad is no more

But logic has no role when it comes to Kashmir.

Following the earthquake, the Indian army has almost become the de-factor government in the border town of Uri. Muzaffarbad, which was completely devastated, is hardly an hour away from Uri. From Islamabad, it takes three hours under normal conditions.

Yet when the tragedy struck, Indians were not the first to rescue people buried under debris, save the lives of those severely injured, or provide food and shelter to the victims in Muzaffarabad. That privilege went to the French and British aid workers, who flew in 36 hours after the event.

Humanity was overshadowed by the strategic concerns. Compassion gave way to matter-of-factness. The man-made disaster followed the natural one.

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered to conduct joint rescue operation, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf told the press that "We need to work out what we would like to have from them. You do understand there is a little bit of sensitivity there. But I expressed my gratitude and we will work out whatever we need from them we will certainly ask."

Plea from across the LoC

Obviously, what Pakistan needed was urgent rescue teams with helicopters and medical facilities. India was in a position to provide both.

Musharraf's dilemma was exposed when he was asked if he was concerned over any misunderstanding between the two armies, which had fought two wars in the past.

"No, there is no misunderstanding there. You are right, we fought wars. At this moment, we should not be discussing about wars we fought. But the sensitivity I spoke of arises exactly because of whatever you said," he replied.

Musharraf's rejection of India's offer highlights the harsh realities between the two nations which have been talking peace for the past two years.

"What kind of enemies we are? How much bitterness has filled our hearts that even in sorrow we refused to hold each other's hands?" asks Islamabad-based Hamid Mir, the first journalist to reach remote villages in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, long before the administration or army arrived with help.

After surveying the affected areas, he agrees that many lives could have been saved if rescue teams had reached these far-flung areas earlier. The fact that a two-year-old baby was rescued alive from a village in the North West Frontier Province seven days after the quake suggests that many more people could have been saved if rescue had begun as soon as the tragedy struck.

"So many people who were buried under the debris could not be rescued because Pakistan didn't have the enough numbers of helicopters," said Muzaffarabad resident Sardar Usman Khan.

The world's seventh largest army was just not equipped to cope with the tragedy.

Because of the mountainous topography of Kashmir, many villages remained inaccessible for the first three days.

The administration is under severe criticism for the delayed and inadequate response to the tragedy, and well-known Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid has declared that "Musharraf is facing his 'Katrina moment'."

On October 8, for many crucial hours Islamabad didn't get the correct picture of the situation in Muzaffarbad because telephone lines were cut off and the army there was in a state of disarray.

Moreover, the administration and media attention was focused on the collapse of Margalla Towers, an elite residential complex in Islamabad.

Special: 'Musharraf, please leave'

When Musharraf's administration was caught unawares, how could he give space to the Indian Army to "reach out" to the distressed people in Muzaffarbad?

"Pakistani leaders thought that while doing relief operation Indian Army would have got information of all the positions of Pakistan army in PoK. Another fear was that they would leave behind some spies disguised as relief workers," says Hamid Mir.

They also suspected that Indians would play their charity card for political advantage to win over the Kashmiris of PoK.

When Musharraf talked churlishly about 'sensitivities" involved in allowing India to help victims, he knew what he was talking about. His nation was just not ready to hear that his army was incapable of handling areas along the most sensitive border.

Fervent nationalism ensured that Pakistani leaders became edgy over reports that the Indian army had helped Pakistani soldiers along the Line of Control rebuild their bunkers. Such reports were "untrue and baseless," declared Islamabad.

Soldiers did not rebuild bunkers: Indian Army

Most of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir is now a ravaged landscape, but Musharraf is reluctant to show it to the world.

Indian newspapers were denied visas to visit the region. Most foreign journalists are taken by helicopter to the area for just a day. Similarly, the Pakistani media complains that Indian embassy delays visas without giving reasons. The Pakistan High Commission in London denied a visa to a TV cameraman of Indian origin.

Another factor is that the devastated region is also the epicenter of terrorism. Pakistan is wary of negative publicity.

Opinion is divided over how the earthquake affected the terrorists.

"One positive result of the earthquake may be greater international and Pakistani civilian pressure to close these (militants ) camps, thereby speeding up the peace process with India," writes Ahmad Rashid.

In India, there is an outcry over the reportedly lukewarm reaction to the tragedy in Kashmir.

Although the rapid response of the Indian army is getting kudos and Prime Minister Singh's government is not faring poorly either, there was some disconnect and it was showing, says Nayar.

"My biggest disappointment has been our NGOs and voluntary organisations. Their reaction, even if I were to search for it with a fine-toothed comb, was tepid, " he says.

If Indians had rushed to help Kashmiris from both sides, "there would have been an emotional upsurge and the feeling that someone of their own had come to the rescue. It would have won the hearts of even the most hardened anti-Indian elements who have been fed on the propaganda that Hindus are out to destroy Pakistan. The humanitarian response of our NGOs would have been the biggest story of the year."

Terrorism expert Ajay Sahni disagrees.

"It's sheer stupidity to even think about joint relief operation. How can Pakistan accept India's help? That would mean that Pakistan has failed to deliver good governance to 'Azad Kashmir.' For the past 57 years, untiringly Pakistan leaders have invested in spreading venom against India in the same area by painting India as a demon. How can Musharraf now allow India to be their benefactor in time of despair?"

He says there was no hidden opportunity in this tragedy.

However, no one denies that both sides are eager to score political points.

"You don't need earthquake to run your peace process," says former Intelligence chief and Kashmir expert A K Dulat. "It was wishful thinking that Pakistan would allow joint operations. Pakistani people can ask their leaders that how come you are not capable of handling PoK? Why do you need the Hindu fauj?'

Quake-hit Pak faces shortage of shrouds

"In a similar situation," he says, "India would not have accepted the offer for joint operation. Its a sad thing, but that's how it is."

Sahni also believes that "it's time Kashmiris understand that when you keep mainstream of India away from their state, the communication gap increases. Does corporate India have any presence in Kashmir to help them? Does any NGO have reliable data to reach out to them? Kashmiris were proud to keep the mainstream India away. Now they are complaining, asking why are you not coming closer?"

A day after the earthquake, a group of Hindus were segregated and shot dead by militants in Rajouri. The next day, more than dozen militants were killed when they were infiltrating from POK. And on October 13, the first woman suicide bomber blew herself up on the national highway.

Sahni expects more violence over the coming month, since the terrorists will now try to prove that they are still capable and cannot be written off.

But more than the Jihadis, the attention is on Musharraf.

Will his inability to deliver during the greatest tragedy to strike the Kashmiris and the people of the NWFP weaken his authority in that region, and thus impede the peace process?

Or will the general known for his resilience return stronger than before?

The tragedy has crudely highlighted how deep the divisions are between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. But the strategic importance of peace has not lost its relevance.

Tremors across borders: Complete coverage

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Sheela Bhatt