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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 October, 2003, 13:34 GMT 14:34 UK
Analysis: India seizes peace initiative

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News Online correspondent in Delhi

India's sudden announcement of steps to improve its ties with Pakistan as well as a decision to hold talks with Kashmiri separatists is a move to seize the peace initiative.

Indian soldiers
India and Pakistan came close to war last year
It comes amid an apparent stalemate in relations with Pakistan and a spurt in violence in Indian-administered Kashmir.

In a dramatic news conference, Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha announced a series of measures including restoring cricket ties and proposals for new transport links.

Most significantly, the two capitals of Indian and Pakistani-administered Kashmir would be linked by a bus service for the first time since the dispute broke out in 1948.

In a related decision, India's powerful deputy Prime Minister, LK Advani, is set to hold talks with Kashmiri separatists - a first for the country's political leadership.

Boosting links

India's steps to improve its ground-level ties with Pakistan are aimed at consolidating "people-to-people" contacts.

The resumption of a bus link between the two countries in July - initiated by India - earned the country considerable international as well as domestic goodwill.

Pakistani soldier
Defence is a heavy burden on Pakistan's budget

One of the enduring images of that move was the treatment of a sick Pakistani child by Indian doctors in Bangalore.

By proposing free treatment to a group of Pakistani children in Indian hospitals as well as opening new transport links, Delhi hopes to be seen as the prime mover of peace.

The proposed bus link between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir has been a long-standing demand by Kashmiri families divided by more than 50 years of conflict.

Similar links elsewhere will be welcomed by those Indians and Pakistanis who share close family and trade ties.

Despite the apparent softening of its position, India has not announced direct talks with Pakistan at the political level.

It still maintains its position that it will do so only if "cross-border terrorism" - a term it uses to describe militant violence in Kashmir - ends.

Kashmir talks

Delhi's decision to hold talks with Kashmiri separatists is also an attempt to seize the moral high ground.

By placing Mr Advani at the helm, it has given the peace initiative a major profile and also indicated its seriousness
Mr Advani is the most influential political leader in government and a known hardliner who has advocated a tough line on Kashmir in the past.

Now he will be talking to the same people his government has often described as irrelevant.

The move comes even as the main separatist alliance - the All Party Hurriyat Conference - split last month over the issue of holding talks.

The moderate, newly-elected, chairman of the group, Moulvi Abbas Ansari, favoured holding a bilateral dialogue with India.

But hardliners, who favour closer ties with Pakistan, broke away from the main group demanding that talks be held between Delhi, Islamabad and the separatists under UN supervision.

Observers say the move to hold talks with the separatists is a clear attempt by India to shore up the moderates, who they fear may be losing ground.

Not surprisingly, the leader of the breakaway group, Syed Ali Shah Geelani has already dismissed the move while it has been welcomed by the moderates.

Delhi has also made it clear that it sees no place for Pakistan at the talks, a major sticking point which has derailed similar efforts in the past.

But by placing Mr Advani at the helm, it has given the peace initiative a major profile and also indicated its seriousness.

The deputy premier now gets a chance to influence the Kashmir issue and possibly earn some critical brownie points ahead of general elections due next year.

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