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NEW DELHI — For a while, it almost seemed that the recent Gujarat earthquake would help advance the peace process for Kashmir, when Pakistan’s military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, not only sent relief goods to the victims but also telephoned the Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to convey Islamabad’s condolences.

But this hope was soon belied when the Pakistani administration fed its own press with the news that it was Vajpayee who had called. The move was baffling, as there was overwhelming evidence that the call indeed came from Musharraf.

The Pakistani chief executive has gone a step further to spoil what might have been an excellent way of breaking the ice with Vajpayee. He said in a tough message that he was not happy with New Delhi’s peace moves, and that the big neighbor must be prepared to face the consequences of having waged a war against innocent Kashmiri people for about 12 years.

It is clear from this warning that Musharraf is a helpless pawn in the hands of Muslim fundamentalists, who have at least four groups operating in Kashmir and spearheading a jihad, or holy war, to wrest control of the Indian state.

Unfortunately, whatever the general’s views are, he is mostly bound by the wishes of the zealots: his own government backs them and has been training and using them to spread terror in Kashmir. What is more, they are fully backed by the army and the religious right.

Thus, any move to displease them can well spell deep trouble for Musharraf.

However, what the extremists do not realize, or care to, is that their country is on a frightening decline. Most of the world believes that Pakistan is as good as a rogue state, and with its collapsing economy — brought about in a way by its misadventures with India, including the move to go nuclear — the chief executive knows that his days are numbered.

Naturally, Musharraf is a desperate man, caught between a power-hungry army and despotic Muslim organizations like the Hezb-ul Mujahedeen and Lashkar-i-Taiba. If he succeeds in convincing these bands on the sensibility of peace with India, he would probably gain international legitimacy. Otherwise, he will be seen as one who destroyed India’s initiative for harmony.

When all has been said and done, New Delhi has been patient and restrained with Pakistan, extending the unilateral ceasefire before the yearend despite the murderous attack on the Kashmir chief minister, Farooq Abdullah, and the raid on what India considers its national pride, the Red Fort in Delhi, by Kashmiri militants. The Laskhar militant group, for sure, was involved in the Red Fort incident.

Even Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani’s consistent plea for hot pursuit of the rebels across the Line of Control and into the Pakistan-held Azad (independent) Kashmir, has been turned down by Vajpayee, who is seen globally as a man genuinely striving to bring peace to Kashmir.

But somehow, New Delhi is not clear about how it proposes to achieve this goal. And one cannot but help sympathize with India’s dilemma here.

The India-based All-Party Hurriyat Conference, a loose conglomeration of separatists, is yet to get passports for all its seven members keen on visiting Pakistan to initiate a dialogue.

There are reasons for the delay: the Hurriyat, a predominantly Islamic body can hardly be said to represent the Kashmiris, who are divided into Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims.

If there is one single unit that has a better mandate to represent the people of the state than the Hurriyat, it is Abdullah’s ruling National Conference, whose legitimacy also stems from its being legally elected by the three communities. This is a right that the Hurriyat does not enjoy, nor did it care to achieve this by involving itself in the democratic electoral process.

Abdullah has never been welcomed either by the Hurriyat or the Pakistani rulers, for the simple reason that he calls himself an Indian and not a Kashmiri.

And the question of Kashmir’s status has been a major hurdle in the path of harmony. Both Pakistan and the fundamentalists have been urging that India declare the state a disputed territory. Otherwise, they say, no talks can succeed.

Also, New Delhi’s reluctance for tripartite discussions, which will include Islamabad, apart from the militants, does not augur well in the current scenario.

Kashmir cannot breathe easy unless Pakistan is willing to let it do so.

The average Kashmiri, tortured by the terrible conflict, is clearly fed up. But the atrocities that Indian security forces unleashed on Kashmiris in the name of flushing out terrorism now seem to be a thing of the past, and the intense hatred for New Delhi is being replaced by cautious optimism for a prime minister whose well-meaning endeavor is being consistently sabotaged by Pakistan-based entities.

The massacre of six Sikhs in Srinagar over the weekend will merely reaffirm this new thinking.

Vajpayee should convert this positive Kashmiri feeling into a crusade to rid the region of its sores, and the time to confront Musharraf across the table is now, or perhaps never.

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