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THE WORLD

A Tempest Brews Over a Tea Party as Summit Nears

Asia: The India-Pakistan fight over Kashmir plays out even on the guest list for an embassy reception, indicating just how hard peace talks may prove.

July 09, 2001|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SRINAGAR, India — As the leaders of Pakistan and India prepare for a peace summit near the Taj Mahal on Sunday, a storm is brewing over a diplomatic tea party.

Pakistan's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has invited separatist politicians from the disputed territory of Kashmir to a reception Saturday at Pakistan's embassy in New Delhi, the Indian capital, but India's government is trying to stop them from attending.

The disagreement isn't important enough in itself to spoil the summit, but it shows just how hard it will be for Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to make the far more difficult compromises required to end the two countries' 54-year conflict over Kashmir.

Abdul Ghani Bhat, an academic who heads a loose alliance of 23 separatist parties in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, says he is determined to talk to the Pakistani leader, whether Vajpayee approves or not.

"Who does the prime minister of India think he is?" Bhat asked in an interview in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir. "He is the prime minister of India, but not the master of Professor Ghani and the people of Jammu and Kashmir--not at all.

"Musharraf also cannot sit in judgment in regard to the future disposition of Jammu and Kashmir," Bhat added.

Although both Vajpayee and Musharraf say they want to get past the tangled, bloody history of Kashmir and make peace, their governments are repeating long-standing positions on the dispute in advance of the summit in Agra.

India insists that all of Jammu and Kashmir, including the roughly one-third of the Himalayan territory under Pakistani control, belongs to it. But Pakistan insists that Kashmiris should be allowed to decide in a referendum.

The Indian government, which last week called the argument over the tea reception "a nonissue," wants next weekend's summit to focus on trade, a proposed oil pipeline from Iran and other matters much less contentious than Kashmir, to set the right tone for future talks.

But Musharraf has repeatedly said that Kashmir must be "the core issue" under discussion at the summit--which, counting lunch, is scheduled to last only 4 1/2 hours Sunday. The encounter may resume Monday morning if the two leaders decide they have more to talk about.

The pre-summit spin is mainly optimistic, and even Bhat said he thinks the meeting could lead to real change. But few expect any dramatic breakthroughs.

In Kashmir, where each day brings more victims in a guerrilla war that began 12 years ago, the leaders of Bhat's All Party Hurriyat Conference disagree among themselves on whether Kashmir should become part of Pakistan or be completely independent.

But there is no argument that they want to break from India. And Bhat says that if the territory's people ever get a free vote on the issue, as was called for in a 1948 U.N. Security Council resolution, he is certain India would lose.

New Delhi says the conditions set out for the referendum have never been met--largely, the Indian government charges, because Pakistan continues to arm and train radical Muslim guerrillas fighting in Kashmir. Pakistan denies that.

Like Musharraf, Bhat argues that the summit must do more than state good intentions and instead lay down a time frame for future peace talks. Anything less will be seen as a failure and the prelude to a catastrophe, he warned.

"The situation will worsen beyond imagination," Bhat said. "Everything will pick up, menacingly."

India and Pakistan fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, and leaders of the two countries have held 48 summits since they gained independence from Britain in 1947. India is mostly Hindu; Kashmir, like Pakistan, is majority Muslim.

In February 1999, Vajpayee took a bus across the Pakistani border to meet with then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore. That meeting produced an agreement by the two sides to intensify their "efforts to resolve all issues, including the issue of Jammu and Kashmir."

Four months later, Pakistani troops and Muslim guerrillas crossed the Line of Control established in 1972 and attacked Indian forces from the Kargil Heights. The battle, which India blames directly on Musharraf, then the army's chief of staff, brought the two nuclear powers to the brink of a fourth war.

While Bhat insists that Kashmiris are "masters of their own destiny," India appears just as determined to keep the territory's future a bilateral matter between itself and Pakistan.

Indian authorities routinely place Bhat and other separatist leaders under house arrest, and it denied them visas when they were invited to meet with Pakistani officials in Islamabad, the capital, in January.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, few political issues are more important than Kashmir, and Musharraf's waffling on the invitation to Kashmiri leaders hasn't helped his weak image in the run-up to the summit.

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