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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

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Talk Is Not Always Cheap

After 25 years, Kashmir is up for discussion

By Susan Berfield and Ritu Sarin / New Delhi

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"WE SHOULD KEEP TALKING. Even about Kashmir." Well, those were not the exact words of the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan after a four-day meeting in Islamabad. But that is the gist of it. The promise to merely continue discussions, on eight issues ranging from Kashmir to economic cooperation to drug trafficking, may not seem like much to boast about. But on the subcontinent it is a breakthrough. The Islamabad meeting was the first time in 25 years that top Indian and Pakistani diplomats conferred on Kashmir, and left the room on speaking terms.

The Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir is the scar left by the partition of British India 50 years ago. It is the physical boundary between India and Pakistan, closely guarded and always tense. It is the symbolic divide between the two, the only mostly Muslim state in a predominantly Hindu country. For Indians, Kashmir gives meaning to the nation's secular creed. For Pakistanis, Kashmir tests their country's guiding principle: that Muslims need a safe haven. The dispute over who should rule Kashmir has twice erupted into war; India controls two-thirds of the land. It has forced both governments to divert scarce resources from development to defense. Some 400,000 Indian troops occupy Kashmir, and eight years of resistance has left 20,000 people dead, the economy in sorry shape, and sections of the summer capital Srinagar in ruins.

Every leader since Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah has tried, through force or diplomacy, to control Kashmir's fate. On his or her own terms. The archrivals of the past saw no way to cooperate. The recently elected prime ministers of India and Pakistan, I.K. Gujral and Nawaz Sharif, though, appear to share some common ground. They are not yet allies. But they do not seem to regard each other as enemies either. And that is what gives people on both sides of the border some hope. At the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in May, Gujral and Sharif were at ease with one another, and agreed to re-open a hotline disconnected more than a decade ago. It may be their primary channel of communication until India's foreign secretary Salman Haider and Pakistan's Shamshad Ahmed meet in New Delhi in September.

The Kashmir conflict may be settled peacefully, but it will not be settled easily or quickly. Though Gujral and Sharif may see eye-to-eye on some matters, there is no real solution in sight. Farooq Abdullah, Kashmir's chief minister, already seems to have shifted his view, saying for the first time that India should press for the return of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. That may -- or may not -- be a popular idea at home. "The anti-Pakistan sentiment is growing. But people are still not overtly pro-India," says Kuldip Nayar, a human rights activist in New Delhi. "A majority still want independence." Separatists have urged the two countries to include local leaders in future talks; India has always refused.

For these reasons, and others, the supposed glimmer of hope seems a mirage to some. "All the hate items are still there," says J.N. Dixit, the former foreign secretary who led India's negotiators in failed talks in 1994. "I regard the problem of Jammu and Kashmir as intractable. Nothing has been achieved, and nothing can be achieved." Farooq would like nothing more than to prove Dixit wrong. If Gujral and Sharif can work out a deal, Farooq may be the one to make it work in Kashmir. And he, of all people, knows how difficult that will be.

Farooq already has to contend with separatists, pro-Pakistan militants and pro-India militants. Then there is the Hindu minority to consider; some 200,000 have fled the valley and live elsewhere in migrant camps. Still, Farooq's government says that violence is on the wane. More people venture onto Srinagar's streets these days. Reconstruction of the nearly 12,000 homes, businesses, bridges and roads destroyed in the uprising against India is under way. Fifty years after Partition it is finally possible to talk about Kashmir. With a bit of hope.


1947 TWO MONTHS AFTER Partition, Maharaja Hari Singh cedes Jammu and Kashmir to India on two conditions: that New Delhi send troops to quell the growing violence in the area, and that Kashmiris approve his decision in a referendum. New Delhi agrees to the first demand, which sparks a year-long war with Pakistan. It never honors the second.

1949 A U.N.-brokered ceasefire leaves India in control of two-thirds of the region.

1951 The first of a series of symbolic elections. New Delhi promises self-rule, but gradually reduces Kashmir's autonomy over the years.

1965 India and Pakistan wage a month-long war over Kashmir.

1972 The two countries sign the Simla Treaty and promise to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

1988 The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which seeks independence, launches its first bombing campaign.

1994 Contacts between New Delhi and Islamabad are suspended as tension over Kashmir increases.

1996 Kashmir holds its first election since 1987. Farooq Abdullah becomes chief minister, for the third time.

1997 Newly elected leaders I.K. Gujral and Nawaz Sharif meet and agree to renew efforts to settle the dispute.

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This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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