- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 23, 2005

The earthquake that shook the Himalayas in South Asia may also prompt a shift in Pakistani-Indian relations. Last week, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf proposed that the people of the disputed region of Kashmir, which has been devastated by the earthquake, be allowed to readily cross the Line of Control, or unofficial border, that divides them. Pakistan’s foreign minister later suggested a permanent softening of the de facto border in Kashmir. India has said it welcomes the Pakistani suggestions and is awaiting a formal proposal.

If Pakistan and India reach an agreement on softening the border in Kashmir, which both sides control a portion of, the two nuclear-armed countries will significantly ratchet down the tensions between them. Such a deal would be the high point of the ongoing peace process, which is about a year and a half old. The two countries have fought two wars over Kashmir since becoming independent in 1947.

India has responded positively to the proposal but has also expressed concerns about the prospect of Islamist and Kashmiri-separatist militants gaining easier passage into India. India supports a system of vetting the Kashmiris that are allowed to cross the border, a condition that could surely be accommodated.

In the wake of the massive earthquake that affected Pakistan and India, the United States has pressed the two countries to look beyond their nationalist disputes and recognize the need to cooperate with each other. “This can be a significant moment for the relationship between India and Pakistan. We have seen Pakistanis and Indians working together to provide help to victims in Kashmir,” said Christina Rocca, assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs.

Pakistan initially turned down but later accepted relief supplies from India. It did not accept a proposal from India to conduct joint-relief operations in Kashmir, using both countries’ military, or an offer from India to airlift injured Pakistanis by helicopter.

In the face of criticism for rebuffing those offers, Pakistan has put pressure on India to soften the Line of Control in Kashmir. Pakistan may have made the Kashmir proposal to deflect criticism, but the idea is sound nevertheless. India has made clear it will not consider renegotiating with Pakistan over the line in Kashmir as part of an overall peace deal. It should therefore do its upmost to accommodate the freer movement of the Kashmiri people, particularly given the scale of the catastrophe. Although such a move is unlikely to help relief work, it could lessen the psychological burden on the devastated people of the region and could neutralize tensions between the two former rivals.

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