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India Suggests Greater Autonomy for Kashmir

By Y.P. Rajesh
Friday, November 26, 2004; Page A29

NEW DELHI, Nov. 25 -- India said on Thursday that it could consider giving a large amount of autonomy to the disputed region of Kashmir to help make peace with Pakistan but was not willing to redraw its borders to settle a half-century of enmity.

Foreign Minister Natwar Singh said this position had been conveyed to Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, who ended a visit to New Delhi on Wednesday, in the hope of carrying forward the peace process. "We have made it clear . . . as far as regional autonomy is considered, sky is the limit," Singh said at a news conference.

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A solution based on autonomy for Kashmir would, however, require "a great deal of patience, hard work, good will and trust" between the two sides and would not happen overnight, he said.

India has suggested greater autonomy for Kashmir in the past, and it is not known if this would be acceptable to Pakistan, which has said it is open to new ways to resolve the dispute, analysts said.

Nuclear rivals India and Pakistan both claim Muslim-majority Kashmir in full and have gone to war over it twice since gaining freedom from British colonial rule in 1947. India blames Pakistan for a 15-year revolt in Indian-controlled Kashmir that has claimed nearly 45,000 lives.

The Indian proposal came weeks after Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, proposed that the two countries demilitarize Kashmir, divide it on ethnic lines and change the status of the region, either by giving it independence or bringing it under joint control or even U.N. control.

India rejected the idea, saying it could not redraw borders or divide the region on religious lines.

Singh said the Pakistani prime minister was told that the two countries could settle the Kashmir dispute only if they strengthened ties, increased trade and brought people on the two sides closer to prepare them to accept a compromise.

But Pakistan was more interested in the end result and not in the process leading to it, Singh said.

"By saying that, no, the outcome must be known before, is to my mind putting the cart before the horse," Singh said. "If trade increases, movement of people increases . . . industry, business and farmers develop an economic stake, it automatically creates an environment in which economics may lead to a satisfactory political outcome."

Singh said a similar strategy had helped India and China forge strong ties and that trade between the two Asian giants had surged, helping heal the wounds of a brutal war in 1962 and a decades-old border dispute.

Singh said that Pakistan also had agreed to talk on issues other than Kashmir. Rail ministers of the two sides held talks over resuming a train service between Pakistan's southern Sind province and the western Indian state of Rajasthan, he said, and it was expected to become operational next October.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company