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Take the peace process forward

The recent blast is yet another testimony to the persistence of amoral extremist forces.

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The horrifying bomb blasts on the Samjhauta Express heading from Delhi to Lahore on Feb 19 is yet another testimony to the persistence of amoral extremist forces that are working overtime to derail the capricious but ongoing peace process between India and Pakistan.

By killing 68 innocent passengers on the eve of the visit to New Delhi of Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Khurshid Ahmed Kasuri, the intention could only be to provoke another round of mutual recrimination and perhaps even to induce suspension of the continuing exchange.

In sharp contrast to the reactions after the terrorist attack on parliament and the Mumbai train blasts, it is a matter of relief and a manifestation of sensitive restraint that not only have there been no fingers pointed by India but that both President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, apart from expressing sorrow, have also been quick to reiterate their commitment to continue on the sane path of dialogue.

This would no doubt act as an effective check on the hawks within the security establishment on both sides who also look out for any opportunity to pursue their mindless games of one-upmanship.

In this context it is significant that C Raja Mohan, a senior and obviously well informed political analyst, has thought it fit to reveal a few "open secrets" about the so-called back channel diplomacy also just a couple of days before Kasuri's visit.

Writing in a national daily, he cites the authority of the Pakistani foreign minister to claim that "significant progress has occurred in the bilateral negotiations on J&K" which "have entered a definitive phase."

Raja Mohan then goes on to describe the "broad contours of a settlement" which would seem to be very much on the lines of Musharaff's four-point plan which has, in fact, evoked contradictory responses from different Indian government authorities at least as reported in the media.

This prevarication on Kashmir is, of course, not new amongst the supposedly well-informed advisers in South and North Blocks.

Concluding his extremely forthright article Raja Mohan makes a vigorous plea to the prime minister to personally take the initiative, adopt a "big-bang approach", pay an early visit to Islamabad, pressurize both bureaucracies and push through a settlement before "this propitious moment" fades away.

There is an almost prophetic suggestion that a major terrorist attack could result in such a setback. The Samjhauta Express nightmare seems to fit the bill.

The intriguing question implicitly raised by Raja Mohan's version is that given the veracity of his revelations about the advanced stage of back channel negotiations, what is constricting the prime minister from taking bolder and firmer steps towards taking Musharraf's outstretched hand.

There is no doubt that the latter has little support from his own security establishment and faces virulent opposition from Islamist groups to the peace process for a variety of reasons.

This should provide an even stronger rationale for Manmohan Singh to take the initiative and strengthen the moderate opinion in Pakistan that is equally anxious to find a peaceful but honourable settlement.

Understandably, he would have in mind the concern that opposition parties like the BJP and their Hindutva mentors would certainly exploit the terrorism threat in the belief that this would bring electoral advantage in the imminent state assembly elections, particularly those of Uttar Pradesh which would also impact on the forthcoming presidential election.

These considerations seem to be the more serious inhibiting factors and might very well determine the timing of any dramatic step forward in resolving the Kashmir conundrum and bringing about normalisation in Indo-Pak relations.

It is also crystal clear that the voice of the people of Jammu and Kashmir must not only be heard but be incorporated in any final settlement between the two countries if it is to be sustainable in the long run.

However, there is still considerable vagueness about what would constitute the authentic voice of the people. In truth, there is no single voice that can claim to represent the entire populace or even any one region wholly.

It is, therefore, essential that in order to take the peace process forward, the mainstream political parties as well as the moderate alienated elements all be brought on board.

While the National Conference, Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party have in essence come to a common position in terms of open borders, autonomy/self rule and force reductions the Hurriyat, headed by Omer Farooq, is still hesitant to take an open stance even though they must realise that the compulsions within both India and Pakistan cannot allow either country to go much beyond this formulation.

In fact, even this package will not be easy to sell. The Pakistan foreign minister would surely impress these ground realities upon the Hurriyat leaders when they meet him in New Delhi.

The latter would be well advised to heed such counsel if they want to save themselves from being marginalised.

If Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Musharraf are able to overcome their respective constraints (and this is an oversized if) and declare an agreement on the basics, it would make the way forward much smoother and take the dialogue to a higher level where specific content can begin to be given to the 'broad contours'.

However, it would still be necessary to deal with the extremist elements on both sides.

Hopefully even this may become more manageable since they would be identifiable and isolated.

Many would see such an optimistic scenario as a pie in the sky in the wake of the bloody carnage on the Samjhauta Express, but it is precisely to defeat the terrorist menace that bold steps are taken and the peace process is secured.

Ashok Jaitly is a former chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir. He is currently a distinguished fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute.

First Published: Feb 23, 2007 14:26 IST