The Kashmir-centric peace process set rolling with the operation of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus on April 7 enters a crucial phase later this month.
The outcome of the scheduled Indo-Pakistan talks on a troop pullback on the Siachen glacier and the fate of the militant-initiated unity moves in the separatist camp will have a profound impact on the course of the fragile bilateral initiative.
'Demilitarisation' on both sides of the Line of Control -- a critical element of the mutually declared 'irreversibility' of the peace process -- hinges on the success of the impending talks on withdrawal of troops from the Siachen glacier.
The Road to Peace
At another level, separatist unity supported by the major underground militant groups is crucial to stabilising the ground situation in the troubled valley without which the peace initiative cannot make any serious headway.
The Siachen pullout has been on the bilateral agenda for many years. An agreement was nearly reached in the mid-nineties. But Pakistan's refusal to 'record' the existing ground positions (for authentication) derailed the effort. There are indications that the two countries are now inclined to clinch the deal. It is a historical fact that the Kashmir-related peace process is a highly accident-prone venture. All the more necessary that 'impediments' be removed as early as possible.
Reduction of troops deployed in Kashmir will have a multiplier effect on the normalisation process. Siachen could be an ideal starting point as by now both the countries have come round to acknowledging the excessively high human, financial cost which the deployment on the world's highest battleground has been exacting year after year.
Keeping the tension within manageable limits with the existing high level of troop deployment is a hazardous proposition. Besides, the excessive military presence in a sensitive area over a long period produces its own undesirable side effects. To pre-empt any serious danger to the peace process, troop reduction in substantial terms is essential. Only then is it possible to enlist active popular participation in the normalisation process.
Indeed, that is the most credible guarantee for its durability. Several initiatives in the past have fallen through for want of this critical support. The moderate section of the Hurriyat leadership is expected to travel to Muzaffarabad later this month or in June for consulting their counterparts across the Line of Control.
Significantly, the Pakistan-based Mutahida Jehad Council headed by Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin, has plunged into hectic drive for forging unity within the Hurriyat camp. A series of meetings have been taking place to hammer out some workable compromise between the rival factions.
The separatist leaders have been under increasing pressure after their recent separate meeting with Pervez Musharraf in Delhi. The derailed (moderate) Hurriyat-New Delhi talks are likely to be resumed soon. This part of the dialogue process had ground to a halt after two rounds (with the NDA government), following a change of guard at the Centre last year.
Musharraf's 'advice' to even the recalcitrant hardliners to enter into talks with the Indian government was a significant pointer to Pakistan's mind on this score.
More importantly, however, the Hizbul Mujahiddin, known to be the largest underground militant outfit operating in Kashmir, has been throwing hints about its probable participation in the peace process subject, of course, to a few conditions which are by no means hard to fulfil. The peace dialogue with the separatists as also between India and Pakistan will get tremendous impetus with the Hizbul coming on board and the MJC backing it. It would also add to its legitimacy in the perception of the people in Kashmir.
Both the factors -- demilitarisation and credible political dialogue -- will have a healthy impact on the ground situation which, otherwise, is yet to show any palpable improvement. The degraded quality of life in Kashmir is a big hindrance towards normalisation of the situation. Confidence building process at the Indo-Pak level is fine in itself but not sufficient for restoring confidence where it is most needed and without which no measure can succeed.
Improvement in the quality of life in Kashmir is an essential pre-requisite for achieving the desired objective of the bilateral bonhomie. And a visible relaxation in the atmosphere is overdue.
The recent spurt in killings, mainly civilian targets, is a disturbing feature. It tends to vitiate the atmosphere and perpetuate a fear psychosis. Intelligence circles, however, claim that this is a 'desperate reaction' to overall improvement in the situation. Significantly, the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service has so far been operating without any mishap. Three trips of the fortnightly service were completed without any incident. Unlike in the beginning, there are hardly any reports about intending passengers having backed out at the last moment under fear.
As the novelty of this high visibility confidence building measure diminishes, attention is turning to 'what next'. It is in that context that demilitarisation and political dialogue are being watched with keen interest.