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DONNING WAR PAINT'

Yashwant Sinha, the minister for external affairs, is normally economical with words. Yet one might be forgiven for wondering what on earth he was doing giving one interview a day the whole of last week, saying that Pakistan was a fit case for pre-emptive strikes. Sinha knows as well as anyone else that wars are not fought by giving speeches.

If New Delhi thought that it had no option but to initiate pre-emptive strikes against Pakistan, it could have done so by now. So why is New Delhi becoming strident now' Perhaps the belligerence is for the consumption of a domestic audience after the massacre of Kashmiri Pandits at Nadimarg in Pulwama on March 24. But then what would New Delhi do at the next provocation in Jammu and Kashmir'

Some strategic experts are convinced that if there is one more terrorist incident like that at Nadimarg, then the Indian reaction should be to administer a short sharp shock to Pakistan through surgical air strikes across the line of control. It does not matter what targets are hit, they argue, as New Delhi can always claim that it has hit the Pakistani infrastructure of terror.

The basic purpose would have been served. The Indian public would see that the Vajpayee government is finally showing determination to take on Pakistan. This would go down well in a year when four important Hindi heartland states (Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi) are going to the polls. Pakistan would also know that henceforth there would be a cost to pay for encouraging the jihadis. Would Islamabad escalate this into something bigger' Those who speculate about such a scenario do not think so.

More than voices in India, however, the US seems convinced that there could be a major India-Pakistan military conflagaration this summer. As recently as March 26, the United States of America’s assistant secretary of state for south Asia, Christina Rocca, appearing before the senate foreign relations committee voiced the fears of another India-Pakistan crisis in the making. While condemning the Nadimarg massacre she said, “Continued terrorism like Sunday’s (March 24) attack threaten to provoke yet another crisis in the coming months.”

Unofficially also, those close to the Bush administration as well as some outside it have been suggesting that since there may not be a let up in the activities of the jihadis in Pakistan, there could be a war around June this year. By then the snows would have melted, cross-border infiltration would be in full swing and a major strike by the Kashmiri militants could provide the trigger.

It is not beyond the establishments in India and Pakistan to go with eyes wide open into a military misadventure. The Western powers recognize this and seem to be working on a plan — what that plan is only they know — to settle the Kashmir issue in a manner which neither destablizes General Pervez Musharraf nor Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Both of them are seen as dependable allies who are amenable to listening to the international community — especially to the US — albeit within their domestic political constraints.

The international concern about an India-Pakistan conflict is now more evident than ever before. Consider, for example, the increased concern shown by the US, Britain, France and even the biggest regional player, China, about the simmering crisis in south Asia even when the Iraq war is on.

Immediately after the Nadimarg incident, the US state department stated categorically that “violence will not solve Kashmir’s problems” and emphasized the need for an India-Pakistan dialogue. Three days later, on March 27, Christina Rocca underlined the need for the two countries to re-engage with each other. The same day, the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, and the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, called for a “cease-fire” along the LoC in a joint statement.

Around the same time, in an interview to the New York Times, Powell said that after the Iraq war was over, the US would spend more time addressing the strains in the India-Pakistan relations. On March 29, the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, called his Pakistani counterpart, Khurshid Mehamood Kasuri, and reminded him of Pakistan’s commitment to stop cross-border terrorism and urged a respect for the LoC.

On March 31, Straw in his first telephonic conversation with his Chinese counterpart, Li Zhaoxing, sought China’s help to end Pakistan’s support for cross-border terrorism in India and to bring about peace and stability in south Asia. And on April 7, China indicated its displeasure with the notion of pre-emptive strikes in its neighbourhood by emphasizing that India and Pakistan should engage in a dialogue to resolve their differences.

Meanwhile, there are also reports that last month, in one of his telephone conversations with the Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the US President George W. Bush had apparently said that the US was “looking at the LoC” (as a possible solution to the Kashmir dispute). At the same time, France and Britain have come down heavily on Pakistan for its attempts to tinker with the draft of the proposed international convention on suppression of terrorist bombings to justify Kashmir militancy — Pakistan wanted a clause in the convention saying that it would not apply to armed struggles for self-determination.

All these developments started in February and have intensified as the Iraq war seems to be ebbing. This is pretty hectic diplomatic activity at a time when the world ought to be focused on west Asia and should have little time for India and Pakistan. Yet what we are witnessing is increased concern about the developments in south Asia.

These are not international alerts about an impending military conflagration. They are more like expressions of intent — that the world would not allow a military conflict to take place. All the key players seem to be on board on this. Even those in Europe who have not gone along with the US on Iraq will not shy away from an initiative to prevent an India-Pakistan conflict. The local big player, China, has also been brought in. The concern of the international community seems to be to find a permanent solution to the India-Pakistan tensions so that the two neighbours are neither able to blackmail and threaten each other nor destabilize the region.

Kashmir is, therefore, on the international agenda. Settling Kashmir would help Pakistan stabilize politically by taking away the rallying cause for the jihadi groups. It would also help it economically — its loans are already being written off or rescheduled and its balance of payments and credit rating are already showing signs of improvement.

For India too there are distinct benefits. For a country that claims to have global ambitions, being tied down in Kashmir with continuous deployment of security forces and the abuses that go with it cannot be any long term advantage. There is a peace dividend for both India and Pakistan if they stop extracting pain out of the past and do not let Kashmir fester. Does India recognize this' Perhaps it does. In that case, Yashwant Sinha’s strident statements may not be threats of war but a signal to the global community to invite its attention so that a permanent settlement with Pakistan can be reached.

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