Use dialogue to move forward on Kashmir: Zardari

20 May 2008
The Hindu

Islamabad: Pakistan’s new leadership on Tuesday reiterated its committment to resolve the Kashmir issue with India through peaceful means. Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, said after his meeting with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee that the two countries must “use dialogue” to move forward on Kashmir. Responding to U.S. President George Bush’s comment that the time was ripe for a resolution of the Kashmir issue, Mr. Zardari said “it is a very good omen to have the world with you.” Mr. Zardari sought to dispel the impression that he had advocated putting off the resolution of the Kashmir issue to a future generation, and said it must be settled as soon as possible, adding that the two countries could “agree to disagree.” Pakistan Muslim League (N) leader Nawaz Sharif is reported to have told Mr. Mukherjee that any resolution of the Kashmir issue should be acceptable to Pakistan, India and the people of Kashmir and that while the two sides should improve relations on all fronts, the Kashmir issue was of primary importance. Pakistani officials said at a background briefing after talks between the Foreign Secretaries of the countries that Pakistan stood for a “just settlement” of the Kashmir issue in accordance with the U.N. resolutions. They said an agreement on consular access to their nationals in each other’s jails was ready for signatures and could be announced on Wednesday after the meeting between Mr. Mukherjee and his Pakistan counterpart, Shah Mahmood Qureshi. If announced, the consular access agreement would greatly improve the situation for Indians and Pakistanis languishing in each other’s jails, sometimes for years without being granted access to a government representative from their country. Indian officials said New Delhi had verified the nationality status of 13 Indians in Pakistani prisons, while that of 27 others is under way. Last week, India released 14 Pakistani fishermen in its prisons. There are no more Pakistani fishermen in Indian custody, but according to the Pakistan government 133 of its nationals remain in Indian jails. Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said both sides had agreed that the issue needed to be dealt with in a “humanitarian” way. He said the Indian side had expressed appreciation of the deferment of action by Pakistan in the Sarabjit Singh case. A committee of eight retired judges — four from India and four from Pakistan — set up after Mr. Mukherjee’s 2007 visit and which held its first meeting earlier this year, is due to visit Pakistani jails soon to assess the condition of Indian prisoners being held here. The Indian officials were unwilling to commit themselves on announcements to be made after the Foreign Ministers’ meeting. Mr. Menon said the two countries were “very close on several agreements” but as the talks were resuming after a hiatus, he said it could not be said with certainty that “very many agreements” would be signed on Wednesday. “But what we will be doing is to bring them to a stage where they are ready for agreement,” he said. Mr. Menon said both sides had made new proposals to make effective the existing confidence-building measures in Kashmir. Among the proposals were ways to improve the permit system for cross-Line of Control travel, increasing the frequency of some of the bus services and for making possible trade between the two sides. Both sides discussed proposals for improving economic and commercial relations. Mr. Menon said this was an area of “great potential.” The Foreign Secretaries also discussed ways of making more effective the co-operation on combating terrorism, including holding more meetings of the joint anti-terror mechanism set up last year. The ATM has held only two meetings so far. Rejecting the impression that the fourth round of the composite dialogue process — conducted through a year of turmoil and upheaval in Pakistan — had not made much progress, Mr. Menon said it had been a “productive and useful” round during which the two sides had narrowed down differences on a number of issues, including on Siachen and Sir Creek. The two sides also discussed the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, and its importance for the economies of the two countries. Reiterating the Indian position, Mr. Menon said that during talks with his counterpart, Salman Bashir, on Tuesday the two sides talked about how important it was for the project, if implemented, to be commercially and economically viable.