India-Pakistan talks are first since Mumbai attack
Los Angeles Times
25 February 2010
Reporting from New Delhi - Shaqeel Qalander, a furniture maker living on the Indian side of divided Kashmir, for years has been telling anyone willing to listen that India and Pakistan need to dial down their distrust, remove the cumbersome restrictions impeding trade and take other steps toward getting along.

The tradesman said he wholeheartedly welcomed Thursday's meeting of the two nations' foreign secretaries in New Delhi, the first formal talks between the nuclear-armed neighbors since Pakistani-based militants attacked the Indian city of Mumbai 15 months ago.

"We are very much pleased with such initiatives," Qalander said. "Everything can be resolved at the table, not with fighting and conflict."

But as someone in the economic trenches, he has few illusions. People who want to do business across the so-called Line of Control that divides Kashmir can do so only by barter, must work through government intermediaries and can ship using only small, uneconomical trucks. Qalander knows how much work it takes to bridge the gap, in trade or diplomacy.

"It takes enormous patience," he said. "At times we think no sane person can do this, but we continue to do it. There's just so little trust."

Officials, analysts and ordinary people in Pakistan and India concur, saying they see little likelihood of a breakthrough when Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir and his Indian counterpart, Nirupama Rao, sit down together. Still, talking is better than fighting, several said.

One problem is that both governments are going in with their guards up. "It's quite unfortunate that the two sides have come down to the same mutually incompatible positions," said Ishtiaq Ahmad, professor of international relations at Quaid-i-Azam University in Pakistan.

India wants to focus exclusively on counter-terrorism, with a spotlight on the links between Pakistan's security agencies and such groups as the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba. That's a non-starter for Pakistan.

"If they continue keeping in touch with terror groups in the interest of getting at India, there's little hope for progress," said K. Shankar Bajpai, a former Indian ambassador to Pakistan and now an analyst with the Delhi Policy Group. "They can't keep hunting with the hounds and running with the hares."

Pakistan wants discussions centered on Kashmir, the subject of two wars between the nations. That's a non-starter for India.

Even if there was enough goodwill to move forward, it's difficult to know whom in Pakistan to negotiate with. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is on the political ropes, Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani serves at the will of the president, and army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani is to retire this year.

"There are three centers of power -- who do you talk with?" said Dipankar Banerjee, director of New Delhi's Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

Meanwhile, India's ruling Congress Party is vulnerable to public pressure in any normalization talks.

Nor was the mood on the eve of the talks helped by reports that Indian border guards were fired on Wednesday from the Pakistani side of Kashmir, resulting in the injury of one officer. Pakistan denied that its troops fired.

Authorities said a two-day battle that ended Wednesday between Indian security forces and suspected Islamic insurgents on the Indian side of Kashmir had killed three Indian soldiers and three militants.

Ordinary Indians and Pakistanis noted their own perceived hurdles to reconciliation.

"No one wants war or tension, and it's good they're meeting," said Saleem A. Kashmiri, a school administrator in Lahore, Pakistan. "But we'd also like to see the common man's interests addressed. Bigger even than terrorism is the water fight between the two countries. If we have no water, we have no crops."

Others cited ways in which the border has disrupted their lives.

"I had a very good internship offer in [the Indian city of] Ahmedabad, but with the visa issue, I just couldn't do it," said Marvi Mazhar, who recently graduated from architecture school in Karachi, Pakistan.

The biggest problem is the politicians, said Saurabh Chaudhary, 26, New Delhi-based owner of a small-events management firm.

"At the people level everything is fine," Chaudhary said. "But at the political level there will never be a solution. . . . So in a way, there is normalization, but we are still enemies."

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