October 2005 News

Quake Strains 58-Year-Old Fault Line

23 October 2005
The New York Times

Islamabad: The latest face-off between India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the Oct. 8 earthquake centers on the question of how to deliver aid across the heavily fortified Line of Control that divides Kashmir. That line is the central source of their dispute of more than a half- century - as well as virtually the epicenter of the quake. Since it struck, the two sides have fired off proposals and counterproposals on how to best assist survivors on each side. Relief has been offered and rejected. Credit and blame have been assigned. The nubs of history have poked out of the rubble again and again. It is plain that even as landslides washed away the very hills that India and Pakistan fought over so bitterly, their 58-year-old legacy of mistrust and bitterness endures. Whether their initiatives represent earnest humanitarian gestures or strategic moves in a game of political one-upmanship remains unclear. And as always between these nuclear rivals, what backdoor dialogue may be under way is a mystery. Publicly, the jousting continues. Asked about his relationship with the government of India, the Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, testily told the British Broadcasting Corporation on Friday, 'If they don't trust me, I don't trust them.' He added, 'It's mutual.' Later that day, Pranab Mukherjee, the Indian defense minister, responded in kind. One earthquake, he told the BBC, 'cannot alter the history of the last 50 years.' Actually, as the leaders and the people on each side well know, the quake and its aftermath could make history between them. After all, the death toll has risen to 53,000, a vast majority in Pakistan, and three million people have been left homeless. But the latest exchange between the governments shows how enduring are the ties that divide. Last Tuesday, General Musharraf suggested to reporters in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir that the two countries should open the Line of Control, to help Kashmiris on both sides. On Saturday, India proposed that quake victims living in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir be allowed to avail themselves of medical relief at three points on the Indian side. Pakistan countered that Kashmiris on each side should be allowed to cross at five points, and not just for medical help. On Sunday, the comments from each capital made clear that no deal was imminent. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesman, Navtej Sarna, on Sunday outlined the difference this way: 'What we said yesterday was a focused humanitarian proposal. Theirs is a larger thing that goes over and beyond the earthquake.' He added, 'I don't know what shape the mutual agreement will take.' His counterpart in Pakistan agreed that the two proposals were far from aligned. Pakistan offered what its foreign office spokeswoman, Tasnim Aslam, called 'a comprehensive proposal' for opening the Line of Control, while India, she said, offered only medical relief. She said officials from both countries would have to meet to work out logistical details. The Indian Army, meanwhile, announced that the three relief centers would open by Tuesday. A close aide to General Musharraf said Pakistan would not stop people from crossing the line, but wanted a system to ensure that militants could not cross. It is not yet known whether the post- disaster opportunity for lasting détente will be squandered. Talat Masood, a commentator and a retired Pakistani general, said each side had disappointed him. 'The human aspect could have prevailed, everything could have been set aside and acted as an anchor for the great leap they could have taken politically,' he said. 'But they have been the prisoners of the past.' Had the two sides taken that leap, General Masood continued, the main concerns of each could have been ironed out. Pakistan could have been pressed to check the flow of militants into Indian-controlled Kashmir. India could have been pressed to discuss the fate of Kashmir. 'It only shows that the political commitment which they profess - both sides, the leadership - is rhetorical and not substantive,' he said. 'None of them are prepared to take bold steps.' Bold ideas have come from each side. They have been quashed. Shortly after the earthquake struck on Oct. 8 at 9:20 a.m. India time (8:50 a.m. in Pakistan, since the two countries cannot even stand being in the same time zone), the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, offered supplies and helicopters and suggested that joint search and rescue teams be deployed near the Line of Control. General Musharraf responded with caution, citing the 'sensitivity' of accepting Indian aid. Within days, Pakistan accepted Indian relief - including tents, which earthquake victims on the Indian side also needed desperately - but rejected joint operations in Pakistani territory. As for helicopters, Pakistan said it could only accept the equipment and not Indian pilots. India said that was out of the question. Last Tuesday, President Musharraf, speaking to reporters, called for the Line of Control to be opened. India swiftly issued a statement welcoming the idea, but asked for a concrete proposal from Pakistan. Two days later, Pakistan's disaster relief chief, Gen. Farooq Ahmed Khan, declared that India had rejected Pakistan's proposal. India said it had not yet received a proposal. By Sunday, with the death toll continuing to rise, the finger- pointing was in full swing. In Outlook, an Indian newsweekly, the columnist, Prem Shankar Jha, took General Musharraf to task. 'We knew that the road to peace would be long; the earthquake has made it longer,' he wrote. 'It has also placed a question mark on President Musharraf's ability to stay upon it.' An editorial on Sunday in the Pakistani English daily, The News, excoriated India for not agreeing to Pakistan's proposal. 'Though the notion is largely based on actual humanitarian sentiment,' it said, 'India seems unable to ignore the political factors.'

 

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