Kashmir peace track holds
By Anuj Chopra | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
BOMBAY - When militants launched a brazen raid on India's Parliament in 2001, relations between India and Pakistan went into a tailspin that nearly ended in a fourth war between the nuclear rivals.
But the Indian response was markedly different following a series of bombings in New Delhi over the weekend that killed more than 50 people. Just hours after the attack, the Indian government struck an unprecedented accord with Pakistan to open parts of the Line of Control, the de facto border that divides the contested Kashmir region.
The surprise move sends a powerful message that India and Pakistan won't let extremists derail an increasingly substantial peace process. The scale of the earthquake disaster in Pakistan has certainly softened positions, but analysts also credit the latest breakthrough to the growing momentum of the negotiations over the past 21 months.
"Too much has been done on the peace process for it to be derailed by a singular act of terror," says Pushpesh Pant, professor of diplomatic studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. After troop reductions in Kashmir, and defense agreements like the prenotification of ballistic-missile tests, the peace process is nearly irreversible at this stage, says Mr. Pant.
Such optimism is tempered by more than half a century of enmity between the two countries, particularly over Kashmir, the Himalayan region claimed in its entirety by both sides.
It has yet to be established who was behind Saturday's triple, nearly simultaneous blasts. All three bombs exploded in Delhi's crowded markets during the festive Diwali holiday season when markets are thronged by people. The clear intention was to inflict as much damage and loss of life as possible.
Sajjan Gohel, director of International security at the Asia-Pacific Foundation in London, believes that such a well-coordinated attack aimed at inflicting mass tragedy points to transnational extremists sympathetic to Al Qaeda. "In the South Asian region, few have the capacity to pull off this handiwork of sabotage, other than the LeT," Mr. Gohel says, referring to Lashkar-e Tayyaba, a group blamed for the Parliament attack.
While a little-known group called the "Front for Islamic Uprising" took credit Sunday for the attacks, several security analysts suspect the group is a front for the LeT.
Gohel is concerned that the attacks could yet have a chilling effect here: "If Indian security agencies, in the course of their investigations, find out that Pakistan or ISI was behind the bombings, it could be a serious blow to the peace process."
India's initial response was swift, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condemning the blasts as a "dastardly act of terror." The entire country has been put on high alert.
The Pakistani establishment also condemned the attacks, and the Indian government was quick to say that the attacks would not stall the peace process.
Indian officials who were negotiating in Islamabad before the bombings reportedly broke talks to consult Delhi when the news came. The Indian delegates then returned to the table, and struck a deal in the early morning hours with their Pakistani counterparts to open the Line of Control (LoC) at five points.
The deal is designed to reunite families and help relief supplies reach survivors left homeless by the devastating earthquake that struck earlier this month. The disaster, which killed an estimated 80,000 and left some 3.3 million people homeless, has already led to greater cooperation in Kashmir, long a battlefield. First, there was tacit cooperation between military forces along the LoC. Then Pakistan accepted India's offer to help with relief. Telephone lines between the two sides of Kashmir, too, were restored.
Muzaffar Baig, who will soon take over as the deputy chief minister in India's Jammu and Kashmir state, hails the opening of the LoC as a stepping stone for a united Kashmir without borders.
"For the first time, people and not territories were the focus of Indo-Pak negotiations," he said in a phone call from Srinagar. "It will not only help with relief, but be a foundation to unite Kashmiris on both sides of the LoC. It's a step that guarantees peace."
Pant, however, expresses skepticism that peace is guaranteed. Although he agrees opening up the LoC is a huge step for Kashmiri civilians, it will not cause terrorism in the valley to ebb. "The LoC has always been porous for jihadi outfits," he says. "We're opening up what is already open to extremists."
The Jihad Council, a collection of groups fighting to wrest Kashmir from India, had promised a cease-fire right after the earthquake. However, the violence has continued. On Oct. 18, the education minister in India's Jammu and Kashmir state was assassinated by terrorists who stormed his residence in Srinagar. The ongoing attacks, including this weekend's bombings, suggest concern among militant groups that the earthquake could further peace.
So far, the attack in Delhi appears to have failed to whip ordinary Indians into an anti-Pakistan frenzy.
Ramesh Mehta owns a shop near one of the Delhi blasts. The attack shattered his showroom windows and killed a close friend of his.
Despite the enormous loss, Delhi isn't ready, Mr. Mehta says spiritedly, to let Diwali, the festival of light, be enveloped by gloom. Most of the shops in Sarojini Nagar had decided to resume business by noon, a day after the blasts. "The terrorists want us to be scared. That's their only motive," he says. "We won't let that happen."