[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 November, 2004, 11:59 GMT
Letter: Prospects for peace

By Vinod Mehta
Editor of Indian weekly magazine, Outlook

Vinod Mehta considers the first official visit of Pakistan's prime minister to the Indian capital.

The visit came at a delicate period in the process of trying to find a peaceful solution to the problems of Kashmir, the disputed border area between the two nuclear powers.

Let us begin with a tasty question. Can you consume a greasy, heavy, exclusively non-vegetarian meal at 5.22pm?

The very sight of spicy tandoori chicken, oily mutton biriyani, masala fish tikka, buttered naans, rounded off with over-sweet, sticky dishes of dessert - at what is regarded as tea-time - makes me at least feel slightly sick.

In the subcontinent, however, at the fag end of the holy month of Ramadan, politicians throw extravagant parties called Iftaar to celebrate the official breaking of the daily fast.

The sun sets in Delhi, for instance, in the winter months between 5.20 and 5.35 - and sometime in between, the serious and copious feasting begins.

If you have been a journalist, like me, for over 25 years, you learn to avoid parties given by politicians.


In India, where liquor usually flows like water, politicians' parties are very, very dry because officially, Indian politicians don't drink.

Of course, this is a total lie - but it is important to be seen adhering to the Gandhian tradition of simple living and high thinking.

Actually, the conversation at these parties is usually small-minded, boring and incestuous. Professionally, they are a complete waste of time, and not even fun.

And Iftaar parties have one added element: hypocrisy.

Hindu politicians of the right-wing nationalist party, the BJP - whose politics has a pronounced anti-Muslim edge - make sure that they too host Iftaar parties.

One of them told me: "I have to do this once a year, even though I know Muslims I entertain strongly oppose me and my party."

So, why does he do it?

"The media - I want my picture with one of these Muslim leaders to appear in the papers. I must be seen to be secular," he said. So the ritual grinds on.

You might ask what Iftaar parties have to do with the subject of my talk, which is the Kashmir dispute - the bitter 57-year-old divide between India and Pakistan over the border state of Kashmir which has kept the world breathless.

Well, it was at one of these Iftaar parties in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, four weeks ago that President Pervez Musharraf launched his latest and most controversial peace offensive.

A slightly surprised Delhi was offered a region-by-region peace plan which Islamabad claimed was both brave, imaginative and generous.

It allegedly offered India and Pakistan an opportunity to break fresh ground and look afresh at the festering Kashmir dispute.

Bad vibes

The Pakistan president's proposal sought to divide the state of Kashmir into seven regions on the basis of religion and ethnicity.

There would be Hindu areas, Muslim areas and Buddhist areas. The status of each could be determined individually.

Since General Musharraf floated his trial balloon, there has indeed been much debate on the subject in India.

Unfortunately, the idea has not been well received. "Musharraf's new floater leaks badly" read one newspaper headline. "India not Mushy on Kashmir" said another.

All of which led an irritated Pakistani president to tell a team of Indian journalists in Islamabad two weeks ago that he was getting "bad vibes" from India on his brave new idea.

If you want to be negative and get back to the past, he warned, I am ready.

Indian soldier, Dal Lake, Kashmir
India has pulled back some of its troops from Kashmir
The past is somewhere no-one in India or Pakistan wishes to return to.

The international community especially dreads the prospect of the two nuclear neighbours returning to the bad old days.

You might remember that India and Pakistan have fought four wars - three of them over Kashmir - and that in 1999, when India and Pakistan were embroiled in a mini-war, both countries had live nuclear weapons which hotheads on each side threatened to use.

The history of the Kashmir dispute, a legacy of the British Raj, is long, tortuous and bloody.

When the British left India in 1947, the status of the state of Kashmir was undecided. The matter of ownership, in fact, was before the United Nations.

Line of control

Much water has flowed since then, and currently India controls two-thirds of the Kashmir valley while Pakistan holds one-third.

Both countries possess a well-defined international border, but in Kashmir they have what is called the line of control, LoC, which is the unofficial border the international community recognises.

And on the LoC, India and Pakistan have tens of thousands of troops armed to the teeth, eyeball to eyeball, guarding a border of nearly 500 miles.

The irony is that Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, which is at the heart of the dispute, is an incredibly pretty, serene and tranquil piece of real estate.

Tourist brochures call it "paradise on earth".

The people are easy-going, handsome, tolerant, humorous and practice a relaxed, non-radical Islam.

I hope in the next few years, the transition from permanent enemies to permanent friends will become a welcome reality
Kashmiri women are renowned for their beauty and move around freely with no Taleban-type restrictions on them.

That such a valley which has enormous tourism potential should be the theatre of so much violence, strife and suffering is a huge human and political tragedy.

At the core of the Kashmir dispute are two competing ideologies, two visions. India is a secular democracy which houses the world's second-largest Muslim population and is therefore determined to avoid further partition on the basis of religion.

Pakistan is an Islamic state which was founded on the belief that Muslims in the subcontinent would never get a fair deal in a Hindu-ruled India.

And Pakistanis believe Muslim-majority Kashmir rightfully belonged to them.

Steps to peace

The news is not all grim. For the past 18 months India and Pakistan have been locked in a sustained, multi-layered dialogue for all outstanding issues including Kashmir.

The core reason why politicians in India and Pakistan are in a hurry to bury the hatchet is because of the intense pressure from civil society.

There is a whole generation of Indians and Pakistanis who have no memory of the horrors of partition in which nearly a million people were butchered.

It is this constituency which is pushing for an early peace.

On 23 November a slightly worried Delhi welcomed the prime minister of Pakistan, Shaukat Aziz, wondering if he would be pushing his president's controversial proposal.

He did not, saying that the proposals were meant for internal debate in Pakistan.

By the time he left there were embraces and warm handshakes.

Premiers Shaukat Aziz of Pakistan and Manmohan Singh of India meet in Delhi
Kashmir was the core issue for Aziz, left in talks with Singh
The Indo-Pak peace and Kashmir dialogue are still on track - in fact both sides said limited progress had been made during the Shaukat Aziz visit.

In a dispute which has lasted for over five decades and caused much bloodshed, there are bound to be temporary disappointments.

India, it must be admitted, has little to give in terms of concessions when it comes to Kashmir.

But happily, creative solutions which do not include radical re-drawing of maps and change in national boundaries are being thrown up.

I was born in Rawalpindi in Pakistan. My family, part of the old generation, fled to India during Partition.

I unreservedly accept Pakistan as an independent, sovereign nation.

And I hope in the next few years, the transition from permanent enemies to permanent friends will become a welcome reality.

Vinod Mehta is one of India's leading journalists and editors. He is the author of three books and president of the Editors Guild of India.

Letter is a BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters give their views on the latest political, cultural or social developments in his or her region.


Identity crisis
The difficulties of being mixed race in South Africa
Class divisions
University in the US separates the haves from the have-nots
Radical rethink
Energetic UK and sluggish Germany are defying stereotypes
Battle lines drawn
US old folk will fight pension reform, writes Robert Hodierne









News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific