Bombs spur India-Pakistan peace process

Posted in Broader Middle East | 21-Feb-07 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava| Source: Asia Times

Rapid Action Force (RAF) personnel stand guard besides a burnt carriage of a Samjhauta Express train in Deewana, near Panipat town, February 19, 2007.

NEW DELHI - The twin bomb blasts on Monday on the Samjhauta "peace train" near Panipat in the northern Indian state of Haryana could, for the first time, draw Pakistan and India closer together in a common front against terror.

At least 66 people - both Indians and Pakistanis - died and scores were injured when the bombs went off on the Pakistan-bound train about 80 kilometers north of New Delhi.

Leaders in both Islamabad and Delhi have condemned the attack, rather than point fingers at each other, as normally happens when such incidents occur. There is even talk of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visiting Islamabad soon, a trip that was put on indefinite hold after serial bomb blasts on trains in Mumbai last July killed close to 200 people and injured more than 300.

Pakistan has described the attack as "horrendous" and played down the lapse of Indian security forces that resulted in the bombs being planted inside the train, most probably at Delhi station.

"We will not allow elements which want to sabotage the ongoing peace process and succeed in their nefarious designs," President General Pervez Musharraf said in a statement. Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz called Manmohan on Monday to express his condolences.

In a sign that the nascent peace process between India and Pakistan endures, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri will keep to his schedule to hold talks with his counterpart, Pranab Mukherjee, in Delhi this week.

The thinking in Delhi appears to be that while there are elements within the Pakistani establishment that continue to harbor terrorists, the only way forward is through talks toward a long-term solution to the countries' fractious ties. This approach is meant to create a constituency of people who will support the two countries being at peace. Included would be relatives who could travel between the countries, tourists and business people.

Manmohan in Pakistan?
India and Pakistan have come a long way since the Kargil incident in 1999, when an incursion by Pakistani troops into Indian territory nearly set off a full-scale war. Despite major setbacks such as the attacks on Mumbai trains, the peace process has held and the countries continue to interact with each other at various levels, including official, cultural, sports, transport, tourism and trade contacts.

However, there has been no major breakthrough, especially on the core issues of Kashmir and terrorism. Pakistani militants have fought a decades-long battle to have the Indian-administered section of Kashmir incorporated into Pakistan, while India has routinely accused Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism in India.

Commenting on his delayed trip to Pakistan, Manmohan said recently, "I have received an invitation which I have accepted. I am looking forward to the visit. But when I visit I should do some substantive business. I have always been hopeful, but there is many a slip between cup and the lip."

On another occasion, Manmohan called for a treaty of peace and friendship with Pakistan. "I dream of a day when, while retaining our respective national identities, one can have breakfast in Amritsar [India], lunch in Lahore [Pakistan] and dinner in Kabul [Afghanistan]. That is how my forefathers lived. That is how I want our grandchildren to live." Manmohan, a Sikh, was born in what is now Pakistan before partition of British India in 1947.

Last month, Musharraf sprang something of a surprise on India by announcing that he will not to attend a multilateral forum in Delhi in April as he wants Manmohan to visit Islamabad first.

Musharraf's decision was conveyed to Mukherjee, who was on a two-day visit to Pakistan. Kasuri said, "The president of Pakistan has already visited India in 2005. It is the turn of the prime minister to visit Pakistan. It will be considered more appropriate for the president to visit India after the prime minister has paid a return visit."

The last time an Indian premier visited Pakistan was when Atal Bihari Vajpayee launched the peace process in January 2004. Since taking office in 2004, Manmohan has been to the United States and Delhi hosted President George W Bush last March, a visit that resulted in the signing of a historic civilian nuclear deal as well as taking Indo-US trade and defense relations to a new level.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited India recently to announce Moscow's intention to help India build nuclear reactors, as well as offering energy sops and defense cooperation. Top Chinese leaders have also visited India and declared substantial progress on border and trade issues.

While matters related to economic progress interest Manmohan, Pakistan links free trade with India to the resolution of all issues connected with Indian-administered Kashmir. Musharraf has even suggested converting the Indian and Pakistani sections of Kashmir into a self-governed demilitarized zone. This would only be the remotest bit possible, though, through protracted negotiations.

Certainly, Manmohan does not want to go to Pakistan just for the photo opportunities. One suggestion is that should he go, the leaders seal a deal over the high-altitude Siachen Glacier in the disputed Kashmir region where soldiers from the two countries have faced off for years.

Last year, Indian National Security Adviser M K Narayanan said his country and Pakistan were "closer" to a "final point" on the Siachen problem. Then, Manmohan hinted that the countries were close to a breakthrough on the 6,000-meter-high Siachen, calling it a "mountain of peace". But this was before last July's Mumbai blasts.

Since then the peace process has limped along, with an India-Pakistan anti-terror panel set up last year scheduled to hold its first meeting next month in Islamabad. Discussions will include intelligence sharing, Siachen, and now the circumstances of the Samjhauta attack.

Over the past months there appears to have been a degree of listlessness in the Indian leadership in dealing with Pakistan, while the leaders there have been preoccupied with problems in the tribal areas adjoining Afghanistan where the Taliban have emerged as a strong force. Musharraf also has powerful forces in the army and intelligence community opposed to any deals with India, not to mention strong Islamic factions with the same view.

The Samjhauta attack could just be the catalyst needed to spur the two sides out of their lethargy, and for Manmohan to made his long-overdue trip to Islamabad.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.

Siddharth Srivastava is WSN Editor India.