1 January 2004
The Times of India
India puts Pakistan under pressure with bus buzz
By Siddharth Varadarajan
TIMES NEWS NETWORK
New Delhi: In a gentle but strategic upping of the peace pressure on Pakistan, India on Wednesday proposed concrete dates for technical-level talks on the establishment of bus links between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad in Kashmir, and Munabao and Khokhrapar on the Sindh-Rajasthan border.
The latest proposals come less than a week before the start of the Saarc summit in Islamabad on January 4 and are designed to test the degree to which Pakistan is willing to move bilateral relations forward, independent of a political dialogue process on the “core issue’’ of Kashmir.
Speaking to reporters here, an external affairs ministry spokesman said India was acting “in continuation of the step-by-step process for normalisation of links and promotion of people-to-people contacts’’. He said India was proposing that technical talks on the Sindh-Rajasthan and Kashmir buses be held in the second half of January.
India also proposed the reciprocal removal of restrictions placed on the movement of respective high commission staff in December 2001 as well as a further increase in the size of the two missions to 75 each from the current strength of 55.
Although an Islamabad news agency quoted a senior Pakistani official as saying a “40-minute meeting’’ between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Pakistani counterpart Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali had been fixed for January 5 to discuss “bilateral issues’’, Indian officials said the reports were baseless. Officially, the line from New Delhi is that even if the two PMs meet on the sidelines, there will be no substantive discussion between them on political matters.
If Islamabad were to ‘improve the atmospherics’ by responding positively to the latest Indian transport proposals and taking steps on the terrorism front, the stage could well be set for “talks about talks’’, Indian officials here said.
If Pakistan agrees to the talks on the new buses, it would represent the first real step forward on the people-topeople front since 1999, when the Lahore-Delhi bus service was launched.
When the Kashmir bus proposal was first made by external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha in October, Pakistan’s initial response was negative. Pakistan then said the service could only run under UN supervision. Since then, Islamabad has softened its stand.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Colin Powell and the French and British foreign ministers separately telephoned Mr Sinha on Wednesday to express their appreciation for his commitment to carrying forward the PM’s peace initiative.