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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 December, 2004, 12:36 GMT
From Kashmir to Kathmandu

By Charles Haviland
BBC correspondent in Kathmandu

Mirwaiz Omar Farooq (left) and Abdul Ghani Butt
The meeting provided scope for a rare exchange of views

In a corner of the lobby of Kathmandu's plushest hotel, a remarkable cluster of people sat together over whisky, tea and coffee.

There was a retired army general, the epitome of Pakistan's military and political establishment.

There were Kashmiri politicians from both sides of the Line of Control which divides the territory; an academic and a teacher; and a leader of Kashmiri Hindus, the Pandits, displaced from their homes by the violence in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Remarkable sentiments were being expressed on this emotional occasion: one of the first times that different parties in the dispute have met in South Asia.

"We're similar in language and culture, in fact we're birds of the same feather," said the Kashmiri Pandit leader, Jatender Bakshi.

Ethnic division

He was seated with Professor MARK Khaleeque, a party leader and retired government member in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, who nodded in agreement about the value of meeting "our brethren from that side".

The two had just met for the first time. Prof Khaleeque said any religious or ethnic division of Kashmir should be ended, while Mr Bakshi outlined his vision for the near future.

That is the return of Pandits to their homes in the Kashmir Valley "to live physically, emotionally and intermingle with the majority [Muslim] community there as we lived before".

We're similar in language and culture, in fact we're birds of the same feather
Kashmiri Pandit leader, Jatender Bakshi

He had been invited to hold a meeting on this subject at the Srinagar office of the All-Party Hurriyat Conference - the main umbrella separatist group in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Nearby, Hurriyat leaders - those representing its moderate wing, opposed to the armed struggle - patiently gave media interviews, although keen to get out sightseeing.

Hurriyat chairman Mirwais Omar Farooq, young and slick, said the great value of these informal talks was that they were focused on Kashmiris rather than just on India and Pakistan.

"Half my family are in Azad [Pakistani] Kashmir, but I've never visited," he said. "We need open borders - let's forget rhetoric, forget passports."

A hug

His older Hurriyat colleague, Prof Abdul Ghani Bhat, was effusive - the meeting had enabled a far greater depth of interaction than anything in the past, he said.

There was even a hug between Pakistani and Indian retired lieutenant-generals, Talat Masood and BS Malik.

Holding such talks in Nepal - like Kashmir a Himalayan beauty spot - may have seemed an unlikely choice.

Map of Kashmir

"We chose Kathmandu because it's neither India nor Pakistan but very nearby," said the amiable Italian professor, Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, the prime mover behind this event.

As head of Pugwash Conferences, an international peace think-tank, he visited both halves of Kashmir a year ago and decided to do something concrete.

He said there was a heartening degree of mutual respect, adding that the Indian and Pakistani governments had offered "amazing" support.

He did not, however, hide his disappointment that Indian-administered Kashmir's current and former governing parties had both failed to send delegates.

"We tried by every means to get them - you'll have to ask them why they didn't come," he said.

Humanitarian problem

By contrast, there was a contribution of sorts from the hardline faction of the Hurriyat separatists.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani had sent a paper for debate, describing Kashmir as a humanitarian problem rather than a territorial dispute.

Indian troops in Kashmir
All sides say they want to end the violence

Hurriyat chairman Mirwais Farooq said that while both Delhi and Islamabad had tried to "sabotage" such meetings in the past, things were now different. He had been allowed to travel using just his driving licence for identity purposes.

But whatever new cross-border initiatives are discussed here, and however deep the goodwill, will the governments will retreat to their normal positions when it comes to the crunch?

That could happen, admitted Hameeda Nayeem, a professor from Srinagar. But, she felt, when ordinary people and think tanks get involved, "it is very difficult for governments to backtrack".

On India's regular complaint, alleged cross-border incursions by militants, General Masood said he believed Pakistani policy towards guerrillas had significantly hardened, especially since assassination attempts on President Musharraf last year.

Delegates here talked of a future of open borders, of Kashmir being an engine of commerce in the region - a unifier rather than a divider.

That may all be a long way off. But as of now, the Pugwash-sponsored talks here have produced a lot of smiling faces.

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