Kashmir earthquake opens chance for peace between India, Pakistan


WASHINGTON -- The number of casualties from the powerful Oct. 8 earthquake that struck the Kashmir region of Pakistan and India in the western Himalayas still is rising. But some good might emerge from the disaster.

The quake's epicenter lay near Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan's part of disputed Kashmir. At least 40,000 people died, nearly twice that many were injured and another 2 million left homeless. Damage in Indian Kashmir, across the unofficial border called the Line of Control, was less catastrophic but still severe. In terms of human loss, the quake was the worst in the region since one in May 1935 flattened Quetta in Pakistan, killing 35,000 people.

Kashmir's seismic upheaval turned Muzaffarabad and surrounding areas into a massive graveyard. These new graves join those of an estimated 60,000 victims of Kashmir's other agony: the 16-year-old separatist insurgency that has racked Indian Kashmir. Although triggered in 1989 by discontent among Kashmiri youths, the militants received arms, training and guidance from Pakistan's military intelligence service.

Until a cease-fire silenced the guns in December 2003, the armies of the two South Asian nuclear powers regularly traded large-scale artillery and mortar barrages across the Line of Control. Since 9/11, Pakistan has come under heavy international pressure to stop infiltration into Indian Kashmir. Islamabad claims it is doing all it can. New Delhi disputes this, but acknowledges that infiltration is down.

There are hopes that Kashmir's two agonies will lead to enhanced cooperation between India and Pakistan. Islamabad accepted New Delhi's offer of disaster relief. Several shipments of clothing, tents and medical and other needed supplies have arrived.

New Delhi authorized private citizens and organizations to send financial aid to Pakistan and allowed Pakistani military helicopters to carry out relief operations in the no-fly zone near the Line of Control. Although Pakistani authorities rejected offers of relief flights by Indian military helicopters with Indian pilots, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has since proposed opening the Line of Control for relief efforts, which India welcomed.

Political leaders in both parts of Kashmir have also been calling for more cooperation in disaster relief efforts. Sardar Sikander Hayat Khan, prime minister of Pakistan's Azad Kashmir, and Mehbuba Mufti, leader of the ruling party in Indian Kashmir, have urged an easing of restrictions to facilitate the flow of help to earthquake victims.

It is hoped that Indian and Pakistani willingness to work together to ease the agony of the earthquake will accelerate slow-moving negotiations to overcome more than a half-century of bitter Indo-Pakistani enmity. Kashmir has been at the center of that hostility, the cause of two full-scale wars and one limited conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

For the past two years, India and Pakistan have engaged in renewed efforts to overcome their differences, including Kashmir. Under the framework of what is called the "composite dialogue," the talks have marked the longest-running negotiating process the two countries have sustained in many years, and are yielding some positive results.

Apart from a marked improvement in bilateral atmospherics, the most noteworthy achievement has been the start of bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad. Until interrupted by the earthquake, Kashmiri families could travel between the two capitals of the region for the first time since the territory was split between India and Pakistan nearly 60 years ago.

Also significant, Kashmiri separatist leaders recently met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and were permitted by New Delhi to visit Pakistan and meet with General Musharraf, for the first time making the separatists part of the normalization process.

After the latest agony to afflict Kashmir, let's hope that India and Pakistan will quicken efforts to normalize relations and bring peace to the people of Kashmir, who have borne the brunt of natural and manmade tragedies.

Dennis Kux, a retired U.S. ambassador, is a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Karl F. Inderfurth, assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs from 1997 to 2001, is a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

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