Leading Article: Concessions hold key to peace in Kashmir

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The Independent Online
THE STATEMENT on Tuesday by the former prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, that his country possesses the atomic bomb had two targets: the woman who preceded and succeeded him as prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and an even older enemy, India.

It has long been assumed that both Pakistan and India have the capability to produce nuclear weapons at short notice. Mr Sharif's abandonment of the official position - that none has been made - was doubtless intended to embarrass Mrs Bhutto and complicate her relations with the US. Yesterday's fresh denial from Islamabad that any such weapons existed could technically be true.

In the short term, it was more significant that Mr Sharif should warn that an Indian attack on Pakistan could trigger a nuclear holocaust. In so raising the stakes he was responding to scarcely less irresponsible remarks last week by the Indian Prime Minister. On Independence Day, Narasimha Rao called on Pakistan to vacate areas of Kashmir under its control, which 'should form part of India'. A day earlier, Mrs Bhutto promised that Pakistan would always support Kashmiris fighting Indian rule.

The dispute over Kashmir, which was divided between Pakistan and India following the partition of India in 1947, has caused two wars and a perpetual, mutually destructive souring of relations between the two countries. Over the past four years, the damage has been aggravated by the ruthless manner in which Indian troops have tortured and killed separatist and pro-independence activists, and innocent civilians. An estimated 17,000 have been killed since 1989 in the predominantly Muslim state.

Leaders of Pakistan and India should now abandon their rhetoric and knuckle down to serious negotiations to resolve this dispute. If the Israelis and Arabs can make peace, so can they. Pakistan's insistence on the all-Kashmir plebiscite promised by India in 1949 under UN pressure is no longer realistic. India in turn should renounce its claim to all Kashmir.

One option might be to test opinion by regions. In some parts of Jammu and Kashmir there are Hindu and Buddhist majorities. They might prefer full union with India, with those already under Pakistani control opting for full integration with Pakistan. The heart of Kashmir is the Vale, whose Muslim majority has long resented Indian suzerainty. India should work towards giving it greater autonomy.

Both sides have everything to gain from a deal. India and Pakistan have greatly liberalised their economies in recent years. It makes no sense that there should be a virtual embargo on trade between them, and only one crossing point; and both countries spend far too much revenue defending themselves against each other. Beyond their borders Asia is booming economically. The war in Afghanistan is over. It is time for New Delhi and Islamabad to negotiate a resolution of their historic enmities and concentrate on raising the living standards of their peoples.