India/Pakistan: Giving Peace a Chance

Dal Lake, Kashmir
An Indian paramilitary trooper stands guard on the banks of Dal Lake near a billboard depicting Indian opposition leader Sonia Gandhi in Srinagar, May 29, 2003 (Photo: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP).

Just last month, India and Pakistan were busy trading barbs. The editorial pages of their respective newspapers were debating whether a pre-emptive strike on the other was warranted. Their most recent conflict over the disputed Himalayan state of Kashmir, now in its 14th bloody year, seemed intractable. Neither nuclear-armed country looked ready to budge.

And then something unexpected happened. On April 18, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, visiting Kashmir’s summer capital of Srinagar, announced his desire for dialogue with Pakistan. (Ties between the countries were cut after an attack on India’s Parliament in December 2001, for which Pakistan was blamed.) Within days, Vajpayee’s Pakistani counterpart, Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali, invited the Indian leader to Pakistan (Vajpayee declined). On May 2, Vajpayee vowed to re-establish transportation and diplomatic links between the two countries. Less than two weeks later, India appointed a new ambassador to Pakistan. 

While many in Pakistan saw Vajpayee’s effort as genuine, they remained wary of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as a whole. The News warned (May 2): “The beaks and the claws of Indian hawks…are as sharp today as they were when [Pakistan’s military ruler, Gen.] Musharraf paid his last visit to Agra [where India and Pakistan held peace talks] two years ago....Are we so naive as to believe that Vajpayee would be in a position to offend these genetically anti-Pakistan elements in his party by conceding even an inch of ground to Pakistan during any future talks?”

The Indian press—referring to Pakistan’s desire for outside intervention in negotiations, and India’s wish that they be bilateral—suggested that the prime minister’s push for peace reflected post-Iraq jitters. The Economic Times said (May 5) that the war in Iraq showed that the United States was determined to “unilaterally impose its will on the rest of the world, including Kashmir” and asserted: “No self-respecting Indian prime minister would like to go down in history as the person who allowed the United States to intervene militarily in this country. And the only way to prevent the United States from stepping in is for India to deal bilaterally with Pakistan.” Mainstream insisted (May 3) that “the initiative remains bilateral and that the United States does not play the role it is seeking to play.”

Still, the Daily Times (April 20) saw a benefit in getting the two nations to ally themselves against outside forces, suggesting: “If Pakistan and India can somehow consider [their nuclear weapons] common assets to thwart expansionism in this region, then together they can prove a better deterrent than if these weapons were turned against each other.” Others simply believed any attempt at amity was worth the effort.

Said The News (May 2): “No other mass of humanity is in as much need of peace as the billion-plus people of the subcontinent—the largest and the poorest collection of people on the Earth.”