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SAILING TO KARACHI

The new initiative launched by New Delhi to build confidence in its relations with Pakistan and to further the dialogue in Jammu and Kashmir must be welcomed. Although it is premature, as always, to believe that the latest proposals will lead to peace and stability in the region, the Central governmentís latest initiative does hold some promise. Indeed, it has become characteristic of the government of Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee to take a bold step just when the possibility of fresh movement had been given up. The latest Indian proposals to Pakistan include a wide range of areas. The most dramatic initiative is an offer to Pakistan to allow a new bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad. Although cynics, particularly in Pakistan, may view this as an attempt by India to legitimize the line of control as an international border, there is no doubt that this will address a longstanding demand of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, from both sides of the divide. In addition, New Delhi has proposed a new ferry service between Mumbai and Karachi, and between Sindh and Rajasthan. Similarly, there is a proposal to allow senior citizens from both countries to cross the Wagah border on foot. Apart from improvement in road links, New Delhi has suggested that rail links could also be restored once there is a resumption of air links between the two countries. Further, New Delhi has also expressed willingness to increase the frequency of the Lahore-Delhi bus service.

The spirit behind the proposal seems to be to improve people-to-people contacts and target Pakistanís civil society. Not surprisingly, therefore, India has agreed to the resumption of sporting contacts including cricket and other games. New Delhi has also agreed to provide free medical treatment to 20 Pakistani children. There is little, however, that India offered by way of official talks. Indeed, even a proposed hotline between the coast guard of India and of Pakistan on the existing pattern of the directors-general of military operations and flag meetings at sea is aimed at non-arrest of fishermen by the two countries in a mutually agreed zone. The external affairs minister, Mr Yashwant Sinha, ruled out summit-level talks with Pakistan. Clearly, the strategy seems to be to engage Pakistanís civil society, even while sustaining the pressure on the government of Pakistan.

In another dramatic step, the cabinet committee on security decided that the deputy prime minister, Mr L.K. Advani, would hold talks with Mr Abbas Ali Ansari, chairman of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference, the umbrella separatist alliance. Although Mr N.N. Vohra will continue to be the main interlocutor, Mr Advaniís presence will help break the ice. It can only be hoped that the latest initiatives are not mere tactics, but a well thought out long term-strategy by New Delhi to bring peace to south Asia.

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