Sharif sentence: analysis

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The Independent Online

This week of all weeks, against all odds, India and Pakistan opened a new chapter in their relationship.

On the face of it the two feuding neighbours have rarely been more hostile. Yesterday's news from Karachi was that Pakistan's elected prime minister, the man Indians thought they could do business with, may now spend the rest of his life in jail. The man who put him there, Pakistan's military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, was probably the architect of the mountain war India and Pakistan fought in the mountains of Kashmir last summer. With Sharif safely locked away (though he can and will appeal), Musharraf is more firmly in the saddle than ever.

And Kashmir, meanwhile, the bone they fight for, still grieves for 35 Sikhs killed three weeks ago by Pakistani terrorists or Indian intelligence agents, depending whom you believe. In the aftermath of the massacre, about a dozen Kashmiris have died, 5 of them scapegoats for the massacre, and the Kashmir Valley has been closed down for days in protest. Where in Kashmir can one detect a chink of light?

Yet there is no doubt that the Indo-Pak permafrost has begun to shift following Bill Clinton's visit to the region which ended a fortnight ago.

Mr Sharif's life sentence may be an example of Clinton's emollient influence. The US president left Pakistan - he addressed the nation directly on television - in no doubt that they must win back the goodwill of the world if Pakistan is to prosper. The judge in Karachi had the option to sentence Mr Sharif to death yesterday. Clinton's warning may have had influence there.

And there are more palpable signs. Five days after Mr Clinton went home, Pakistan formally offered India to resume the bilateral dialogue suspended since the Kargil mountain war. It was the first such offer to have been made since General Musharraf seized power.

India turned the idea down flat. But the very next day a somewhat furtive Pakistani diplomat, Mr Niaz Naik, was spotted in Delhi. Mr Naik, a former high commissioner to India, last summer tried and failed, using his top level contacts, to stop the Kargil fighting. Despite vehement denials, he is assumed to be working for another diplomatic breakthrough now.

And to prove that this was a two-way street, on Monday Delhi released three leaders of Kashmir's All-Party Hurriyet Conference, the closest thing ordinary Muslims in Kashmir have got to a plausible leadership, from jail. They had spent 6 months in detention in Rajasthan. India's tough-talking home minister, Lal Krishna Advani, on Wednesday announced the government's readiness to negotiate with "militants" on Kashmiri autonomy.

None of this would have happened without Clinton's visit. The US president understood two things. One, India will not stomach talk of mediation over Kashmir. But two, that does not mean the US lacks influence. Only a real optimist would predict that true peace for Kashmir was now in the pipeline. But if another war like last summer's can be averted, several hundred mothers will have cause to give thanks.