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Pranab plays good cop, bad cop

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
June 29, 2005 00:50 IST
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Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee, while acknowledging the growing rapprochement with Pakistan, argued during a major address at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace--a leading Washington, DC think tank--that the peace process with Islamabad was far from entrenched and could be only if there is a permanent halt of cross border terrorism across the Line of Control in Kashmir.

But interestingly, in the question and answer session that followed some hard-hitting remarks during his speech—it was nearly 50-minutes long and provided a broad brush of India's historical perspective before he seemed to address the topic of India Strategic Perspectives-- Mukherjee was far more conciliatory, noting that the cross-border infiltration had decreased and that the terrorists were becoming more and more isolated and hence their attacks more desperate targeting innocent civilians.

Speaking to a standing-room audience of senior Administration officials, think tank heads, scholars, representatives of the US defense establishment and media, the defence minister said in his prepared remarks that 'there have been several positive developments in our relations with Pakistan over the last one year-and-half years.

The ceasefire of November 2003 is holding. The composite dialogue has entered a second round. People-to-people exchanges have acquired a momentum of their own. The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service started despite terrorist threats and attacks.'

But he argued that 'at the same time, we cannot still say that the peace process is entrenced,' and claimed 'the infrastructure for terrorism in Pakistan and Pakistan-controlled territory, remains.'

Mukherjee said, "We do not hear of operations like the ones being conducted by Pakistan, in cooperation with the US against the war on terrorism at its western frontiers, towards its eastern borders with India."

"More importantly," he added, "from the point of view of our strategic interests, trade and transit with and through Pakistan remain highly circumscribed."

He predicted 'it is only when India and Pakistan resume direct, bilateral trade and transit, that there will be a vested interest in peace in both countries.'

But when asked if the infiltration across the LOC is growing, Mukherjee said, "In fact, according to the recent figures available to us, infiltration from the other side of the border has been reduced though efforts have been made (by terrorists to cross), but vigilance and surveillance of the security forces have prevented them."

Mukherjee predicted that after a few more rounds of talks between the defence secretaries of India and Pakistan, it will be possible to arrive at the constructive solution to the problem of Siachen Glacier and make it the kind of zone of peace Prime Minister Manmohan Singh envisages with a demilitarisation of the area.

With respect to the same kind of a zone of peace in the Valley, the defence minister noted that some time ago New Delhi had unilaterally reduced the number of troops in Jammu and Kashmir and expressed confidence "as and when the situation improves, definitely there will be withdrawal of troops and I do hope the initiatives which we have taken-- if it is adequately responded from the other side-- it will be possible to have total peace in Jammu and Kashmir."

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC