Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said today that India wants to hold talks with Pakistan to resolve their half-century-old dispute over Kashmir, sounding a rare conciliatory note after more than a year of unrelenting hostility between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.
Vajpayee offered no specific proposals in his speech at a public rally here, the first by an Indian prime minister in the divided Himalayan region since 1986. Nor did he give any indication that India has dropped its long-standing demand that Pakistan end its support for Islamic militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir as a condition of any dialogue with Islamabad.
Vajpayee also emphasized that dialogue is precisely what India seeks. "Problems can be resolved by talks," he said. "We are ready."
Recalling that two previous peace initiatives had failed during his tenure, Vajpayee said: "We again extend the hand of friendship, but the hands should be extended from both sides. The decision to live together should be made from both sides."
Such language marks a shift in tone. Earlier this month, Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha set off alarm bells in Washington when he said that India had a better case for waging "preemptive" war against Pakistan than the United States had for doing so against Iraq. Indian officials hinted that they were considering limited military action against Pakistan, possibly in the form of airstrikes on camps that India describes as training facilities for terrorists.
India and Pakistan have twice gone to war over Kashmir, a mostly Muslim region that each country claims as its own, and nearly did so again last spring. India accuses Pakistan of backing "cross-border terrorism" by Islamic militants who have waged an insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir since 1989. Pakistan says its assistance to the militants is limited to moral and diplomatic support.
In June, tensions eased somewhat when Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, pledged under intense U.S. pressure to "permanently" end militant incursions across the cease-fire line, called the Line of Control, dividing Indian and Pakistani forces in Kashmir. The number of incursions dropped sharply in the early part of the summer but has since risen, according to U.S. and Indian officials. Both countries have sharply downgraded their diplomatic relations in a series of tit-for-tat expulsions.
But Vajpayee clearly wants to convey a different message during the two-day trip to Kashmir that began this morning. Analysts say he is eager to show support for the new state government, which was elected last fall promising a "healing touch" for Kashmiris traumatized by militant violence and rampant human rights abuses by Indian security forces. The state's new chief minister, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, has won a degree of popular support with initiatives aimed at improving roads, power supplies and other services. He also has pushed for negotiations among India, Pakistan and Kashmiri separatist groups aimed at finding a political solution to the Kashmir conflict.
After presiding at a ceremony kicking off expansion of the Srinagar airport terminal, Vajpayee traveled under heavy guard to a cricket stadium, where he spoke to a generally receptive audience of about 10,000 people, most of them supporters of Sayeed's political party who had arrived in buses.
"Let us build an atmosphere where flowers bloom, birds chirp and play, and it will be a paradise," Vajpayee said, quoting a Kashmiri poet.
"Problems cannot be solved by war," he added from behind a screen of bulletproof glass. "Whatever questions there are, whatever problems there are, let us resolve them by talking."
Some analysts speculated that Vajpayee's conciliatory tone might have been dictated more by the setting than any genuine desire to improve relations with Pakistan. In any event, he was not universally welcomed. Most shops in Srinagar were shuttered in response to a call for a boycott by the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, which represents 23 separatist political parties in Kashmir. Streets were lined with police officers and paramilitary troops, many wearing full combat gear.
Sajjad Lone, chairman of the People's Conference, a moderate separatist party, expressed disappointment with Vajpayee's speech. "Today, he addressed anyone but the people of Kashmir," he said. "There was nothing. The problem is he thinks we're beggars and that roads can solve the problem."
But Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, another moderate separatist leader and a former Hurriyat chairman, took a more optimistic view. "If they are interested in broadening the base of dialogue, that can help," he said, expressing hope that Vajpayee would follow up his "ambiguous" commitment to talks with more specific proposals.
Vajpayee's arrival coincided with the start of a hunger strike by families of Kashmiris who have disappeared since 1989 following arrest by Indian security forces. Parvez Imroz, a human rights lawyer and organizer of the protest, estimated 8,000 people have disappeared, including 26 since Sayeed's government took power.
"At the beginning, we had a lot of expectations" of the new state government, Imroz said. "Nothing has changed."