South Asian rivals must make most of talks

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 July, 2006, 12:00am

India's response to the railway bombings in its commercial capital, Mumbai, on July 11 was predictable: peace talks with rival Pakistan were suspended and a fresh flurry of allegations, denials and rhetoric erupted. Just weeks later, though, there is a chance to put negotiations back on track when the nations begin talks today on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation's annual forum.

The attacks were among the worst India has experienced during the 59-year conflict with Pakistan over the disputed Indian-ruled state of Kashmir. Indian suspicion immediately fell on Pakistan-based groups, although none of the main ones claimed responsibility.

But unlike in 2001, when India's Parliament was attacked by suspected Pakistani militants and the sides were on the brink of war, this time there has been no military response. Having gone to war three times, India and Pakistan know that there is no way forward but to talk. Pitching military forces against one another has needlessly taken lives and deepened the scars of distrust.

Whereas four years ago the countries' armies were lining their international border and UN-mandated ceasefire line in Kashmir and bristling for battle, now they have been moved back to a less threatening distance. That has allowed peace talks that have permitted the warmest relations since the dispute began.

The possibility of war has not been eliminated; a truce may be in effect but shots still occasionally ring out and suspicions remain high. India's army claimed last week, for example, that it had killed a Pakistani army officer and two militants trying to sneak into Kashmir.

Officially, 44,000 people have died since a separatist struggle began in Kashmir 18 years ago, although the rebels claim the figure is more than double that.

India and Pakistan have learned that war achieves only continued animosity. Talking peace on equal terms, however, can build trust and open doors. So far, progress in talks between India and Pakistan that began in 2004 has been modest, with resumed transport links and increased trade. The issue of Kashmir, at the core of the dispute, has not been broached.

Public outcry over the more than 180 deaths in the Mumbai blasts and suspicions that Pakistani-based extremists were to blame had to be responded to; officials opted for the least disruptive path for the peace process by putting off the next round of talks. Those talks resume just 20 days later, proving that the impetus for peace and the benefits that it will bring outweigh the opportunity for point-scoring. There is, after all, almost six decades of failure using the latter approach.

Negotiators must keep that firmly in mind when they meet. They must do their utmost to drive the process forward, no matter what the threats.