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The Rediff Interview/Mariana Baabar

October 09, 2004

Mariana Baabar is a senior Pakistani journalist and diplomatic editor of the Islamabad-based newspaper, The News. She also writes for the Indian newsweekly Outlook.

Baabar was part of a group of journalists who visited Jammu, Srinagar and New Delhi this week on the invitation of the Indian chapter of the South Asian Free Media Association.

She spoke to Contributing Correspondent Mukhtar Ahmad in an exclusive interview. Excerpts:

How do you feel after your present visit?

It is a new feeling, it is a strange feeling. When a territory is closed for you and there are barriers and chains and borders, it does frustrate the mind of a journalist who feels there should be free flow of information. And when those barriers are lifted, of course there is excitement to see the other side.

Before you reached here, what was the picture of Kashmir you had in your mind?

The picture that was painted by the Indian media or by CNN or BBC. What was refreshing when we came here was that it was not only what they had reported. We are meeting so many different segments of people that we are hearing different voices, different complaints, and different answers. This is the beauty of allowing Pakistani journalists to come here so that they hear and see for themselves what the people here want.

So the visit changed your earlier impression?

The visit has not changed my impression. It has given me a better perspective to know what the people want. If we had heard from one section in Pakistan that the people here wanted to join Pakistan, what we heard from students during our visit to the Kashmir University was that the people here do not want to join Pakistan, they want freedom from India.

How helpful do you think such visits can be in building confidence and finding a solution to the problem?

Our visit itself is part of the confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan. Our visit will give the people in Pakistan a better view once they read reports under credible bylines about what the people actually want here.

How warmly do the people of Pakistan consider the prospect of peace with India?

The people of Pakistan have no problem with the people of India. The problem is between the Indian and Pakistani governments. The only issue that brings the two countries to war is Kashmir. So with people-to-people contact there is pressure on the Indian and Pakistani governments to move away from their stated positions on Kashmir.

Has the recent thaw in India-Pakistan relations really brought about a change in the ground situation? I am asking you this since you have been on both sides of the border.

There are signs of change, because it has given people on both sides of Kashmir a ray of hope. This has also put a great responsibility on the shoulders of the governments in India and Pakistan because when the people from the two sides of Kashmir look at India and Pakistan who have indicated to them that some kind of solution is near, peace is at hand, they should then not let the Kashmiris down.

What do you think is the best way to get out of this imbroglio?

I think the best way is to make the LoC a softer border. Allow the Kashmiris on both sides to meet and let them come out with a solution. If the Kashmiris can bring about a solution, that will be longlasting as it would have come from Kashmir.

There is a general impression that President Pervez Musharraf is a lone ranger pressing for peace with India. How firmly is the general's peace endeavour rooted in the Pakistani establishment and society?

He is very genuine, also because he doesn't have much choice. He has tried the war in Kargil that did not bring any answer, but it highlighted the Kashmir issue internationally. Also, I think President Musharraf and former prime minister [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee are the two people who felt that the time had come to seize the opportunity, find a solution to Kashmir, and be remembered in history. Vajpayee has gone, Musharraf is there, and we hope that Dr Manmohan Singh can also follow what Vajpayee had started.

You mean Musharraf can be trusted even on the Siachen pullout?

India has no choice. He is a powerful leader. Tomorrow you may have some other person and then it would be really difficult to conduct business with him. In Siachen more soldiers are dying because of hostile weather than enemy bullets. Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto had almost reached an agreement to withdraw from the glacier. But the proposal was sabotaged by Indian army officers. No doubt India after Kargil lost confidence [in General Musharraf], but he has to be trusted now.

Will Musharraf shed his army uniform in December?

I don't think Musharraf will leave his uniform. I think he would like to remain a powerful president and in Pakistan the power lies in the GHQ. He is fearful that if he takes off his uniform, he will not have that kind of control on the army as he could have if he is a serving general in the presidency.

Photograph: TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images | Headline Image: Rahil Shaikh

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