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IT is a matter of considerable relief that despite the massive build-up of armies on the Indo-Pak border the situation, though tense, has so far not spiralled out of control. Many observers, post the ‘historic’ speech by Pervez Musharraf and its guarded welcome by the Indian establishment, have even started talking about a road map to de-escalation and eventual peace. That, however, seems premature.

Ever since the launching of the global war against terrorism and the focus of world attention on South Asia, all of us in the region, regimes and people, have both been placed in unprecedented danger as also granted an opportunity to break out of the stalemate of the previous half-century. Now with the world’s eye firmly on us, every gesture is likely to be put under a microscope. Unfortunately for our rulers, this reduces the space for rhetoric and grandstanding, even more playing to domestic constituencies that have so far flourished on sectarianism.

The fact that General Musharraf has been put in a spot, forced to move against domestic fundamentalists who, in collaboration with feudal landowners, unscrupulous and corrupt politicians and power hungry generals, steered Pakistan onto a path of domestic and external strife should not embolden our hawks, forever keen to force through their version of the unended business of Partition.

The recent pronouncements of RSS chief Sudarshan against religious conversion, the unending controversy of the NCERT history textbooks with HRD Minister Joshi even comparing ‘secular’ historians with ‘terrorists’, not only create domestic discord but weaken the hands of the beleagured secular segment in Pakistani society. Barring the episodic attempts at promoting people-to-people dialogue and encouraging a greater flow of people and ideas across tense borders, it has to be admitted that our regimes have done little to facilitate a positive image of Indian democracy in our western neighbour.

Possibly some of the steps taken to isolate Pakistan and increase diplomatic pressure on it to give up the policy of promoting cross-border terrorism are necessary in the situation obtaining after 13 December. Not so the snapping of road and rail links which only makes matters worse for ordinary people in both countries, or the equally inexplicable decision to withdraw STD and internet facilities in the Kashmir valley. These acts of general mobilisation are designed to paint Pakistan as an inveterate enemy, hardly facilitating a reduction of tension.

The recent visits of Tony Blair, Shimon Peres and above all, Colin Powell, in quick succession, have undoubtedly contributed to a growing sobriety on both sides. Even as we remain sceptical about Musharraf’s pronouncements, particularly against fundamentalist and terrorist groupings, and continue to wait for concrete action on the ground, I believe correctly, it is a good sign that the Indian demands have been re-phrased as expectations rather than preconditions. Equally, it is heartening that unlike a few weeks back, none of the political parties including the NDA alliance, is escalating war hysteria as a strategy for the crucial elections to the U.P. Assembly.

It is, one suspects, inadequately appreciated that the US operations in Afghanistan are far from over. Not only are Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and many others of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda leadership still at large, a significant number have probably crossed over into Pakistan. Given their links with sections in the Pakistani leadership, the U.S. will be forced to keep the pressure on Musharraf to clean up his act. This, after all, is in their self-interest and does not require belligerent moves on our behalf.

It is thus time that the Indian leadership turns its attention to the vexed problem of restoring normalcy in Kashmir. Whatever be the final resolution to the problem, no one seriously believes that the ‘mythical’ referendum or a further re-drawing of boundaries and consequent transfer of populations will solve anything, whatever the formal position Pakistan takes. Similarly, the call for aazadi enjoys little salience, even if many of the Kashmiri groups continue to articulate this demand.

There is substantial merit in what Farooq Abdullah says, that Kashmir is not just the valley or Muslims. Also that a vast majority of the people, despite the many tribulations visited on them, remain committed to a secular and democratic India. And, surprisingly enough, he can even visualise a day when special provisions like Article 370 will no longer be required.

What is needed, and urgently, is a restoration of peace and vigorous economic activity, a precondition for which is a vibrant democracy. Elections in the state are not far off. This is an opportunity that India must grasp. There is, after all, no better case that we can make for ourselves.

Harsh Sethi