Have India and Pakistan missed the moment on Kashmir?

July 22, 2008

2007 file photo in Drass on Indian side of Line of Control/Fayaz KabliTake two nuclear-armed countries which are not officially at war, yet whose armies shell each other on a near-daily basis.  That is how it was between India and Pakistan before a November 2003 ceasefire ended their fighting over the divided former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir.  With that ceasefire now showing signs of fraying at the edges and India saying that its peace process with Pakistan is under stress, it is worth remembering quite what a dramatic development it was for two countries which had come close to war in 2001/2002 to tell their armies to stand down.

Nearly five months after the ceasefire, I visited an Indian border post that had seen heavy fighting for years. It was in the Jammu region, at what had been a busy railway station in pre-partition days, on a road that once ran from the town of Jammu to Lahore. The railway station was left in India, with a railroad track that led nowhere, while the road had been closed since 1947.

The station building was pock-marked with bullets, but the guns had disappeared and the grass was beginning to grow again in the surrounding fields. The Indian troops had stripped down to their vests and trousers and were out playing soccer. On the megaphone,  they played music from Hindi films. They knew the Pakistanis at the other side liked the music. But they remembered to turn it down when it was time for the call to prayers. They had a respect for the other side here, born out of the strange courtesies that grow between two land armies when they fight each other for long enough.

Beyond the Indian checkpoint, a long avenue lined with poplar trees led up to the “zero line” between India and Pakistan. Virtually every tree was marked with bullets that had scraped across them or in some cases passed right through them. In the middle of the avenue, a giant peepul tree straddled the two countries, half of its roots in India, half in Pakistan. We walked up to the tree and waved at the Pakistani soldiers at the far end of the avenue. 

This was the closest India and Pakistan had come to peace in half a century.

Indian policeman guards wreckage of army bus/Fayaz KabliIs this peace now unravelling as each country faces its own domestic crisis? The current situation does not create a stable foundation for  talks — Pakistan’s shaky coalition is struggling with an economic crisis, political instability and the threat of U.S. action against al Qaeda and Taliban militants on its border with Afghanistan, while the Indian government faces a showdown over its nuclear deal with the United States.

A return to the pre-ceasefire days looks unlikely, at least for now.  But with violence also on the rise in the Kashmir Valley — at least nine soldiers were killed by an IED at the weekend –you have to ask whether the two countries might have missed their chance to secure a durable peace in the more than four years since the ceasefire was declared.


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