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Editorial: Let's get going on Kashmir talks again

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-09-17

One of the most saddening, and economically debilitating, disputes between nations in the post-colonial years since World War II ended has been that over Kashmir, a mountainous region that has long been called the "Switzerland of Asia." Both India and Pakistan claim the same Himalayan territory; each has seized a portion of it; while China has sunk its teeth into another third of the area. The situation isn't dissimilar to that in the Middle East, where Palestinians and Israelis - both Semitic peoples with a common history, just as Indians and Pakistanis were both born from the same pre-Independence womb of the British Raj in 1947 - have fought over the same land for more than five decades. Enough blood has been shed to create a 13th river in the Subcontinent which now ha 12 major rivers. Last week, the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan met for the first time since new prime ministers in both countries took office in the last few months. They discussed how to resolve the Kashmir crisis but, of course, in the end the talks were, as the polite diplomatic phrase goes, "inconclusive." The time has come for both countries to take dramatic steps to break the impasse. This requires the cooperation of the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the European Union.

The US, understandably, is preoccupied with a presidential election, while the Russians are tied up dealing with the Chechnya rebellion. The EU has traditionally kept out of the Kashmir issue, even though its collective economic and political clout can compel India and Pakistan - both nuclear powers who do significant trade with EU countries, and receive aid and arms from them as well - to accelerate negotiations over Kashmir. Such fresh negotiations can surely be started at the United Nations, when the General Assembly convenes in a few days for its annual three-month session. The Assembly is traditionally and typically toothless; its sessions attract world leaders such as the president of the United States because of the opportunity to address a global TV audience. But rarely if ever, has the Assembly taken the initiative over specific regional and geopolitical issues pertaining to its 191 member states; it's the Security Council that weighs such issues, not that the 15-member body is significantly more effective than the Assembly.

Still, the Kashmir issue is relatively simple to arbitrate. The current facts on the ground are these: India is in effect control of a third of the territory, which is divided from the land occupied by Pakistan by something that the UN calls the Line of Actual Control (LOAC). The Chinese possession of the barren area of eastern Ladakh is unlikely to be ever considered by the UN, not the least because China is one of the Security Council's five permanent members. India's military is puny compared to that of China, and it's inconceivable that New Delhi will be able to force Beijing out of Ladakh. India and Pakistan have already initiated what their respective Foreign Ministers, Mr K. Natwar Singh of India and Mr Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri of Pakistan, disclosed last week - the resumption of railway and bus links between the two countries; the granting of more visas by each country; the encouragement of more trade and tourism; and the promotion of more cultural exchanges, such as the one that the celebrated Indian vocalist Pandit Jasraj is undertaking currently.

The issue that worries India is that of Pakistan's proven support of terrorists who infiltrate into Indian-held Kashmir with impunity. Pakistan says it's concerned about the human rights abuses of Indian troops stationed in Kashmir. Both issues are natural topics for the UN to take up. Even though earlier UN resolutions calling for a Kashmir plebiscite have been opposed by India on the grounds that the UN has no business telling a sovereign nation - India - when and how to conduct referendums, surely an open discussion of terrorism-related matters could go a long way in clearing the air. Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are scheduled to meet during the UN's General Assembly session anyway. Why not transform their chat-and-chew photo-op into a full-scale bilateral summit on Kashmir? Surely UN Secretary General Kofi A. Annan of Ghana can do the needful?

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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