by Ranjit Devraj
(IPS) NEW DELHI -- A new "hotline" established recently between India and Pakistan to prevent accidental nuclear exchange was activated for the first time Saturday.
Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran used it to call his Pakistani counterpart Riaz Mohammed Khan to offer assistance in earthquake relief.
More than 24 hours later, though, there was no sign that Islamabad's military-dominated government was ready to formally accept the gesture.
The quake's epicenter in Kashmir, one of the most heavily militarized areas of the world, presents a test for India and Pakistan, which have contested the divided Himalayan territory for more than 55 years but are now on a path of reconciliation.
The worst casualties of the temblor occurred on either side of heavily fortified Line-of-Control (LoC) that has served as the border between Pakistan- and Indian-controlled parts of Kashmir since 1947, following decolonization.
While about 450 people died on the Indian side of the LoC (250 of them in the border town of Karnah), it is the towns and villages of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir that bore the brunt of the tragedy. Officials estimate at least 30,000 people perished in the earthquake that measured 7.6 on the Richter scale.
According to news reports on Sunday, at least 11,000 people may have died in Muzaffarabad, the border town that serves as the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, and where an estimated 60 percent of its infrastructure was flattened by the quake.
India was the first country to offer assistance for rescue and relief operations.
On Saturday night, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh telephoned Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and offered every possible assistance in relief work, according to the prime minister's media adviser Sanjaya Baru.
"While parts of India have also suffered from this unexpected natural disaster, we are prepared to extend any assistance with rescue and relief which you may deem appropriate," Singh reportedly told Musharraf.
"India is uniquely positioned to help out with relief work in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir (or Azad Jammu and Kashmir as it is officially called in Pakistan) because of the sheer logistics involved, " said Kamal Mitra Chenoy, who teaches comparative politics at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in the Indian capital, in an IPS interview.
If both countries agree, India could deliver supplies to affected areas in a matter of hours because it has heavy-lift military aircraft as well as mountain brigades familiar with the terrain.
"Unfortunately the approach is still military, rather than humanitarian," said Chenoy.
Many parts of Pakistani Kashmir, which have been hit badly by landslides triggered by the earthquake, are more readily accessible from the Indian side, and indeed there are reports of limited cooperation on the ground between local army units from both sides.
India's air force has already deployed heavy-lift helicopters and giant Ilyushin-76 aircraft to rush supplies as well as engineers and medical personnel to Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir. The efforts are being overseen by Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Sonia Gandhi, chairwoman of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
"We have already evacuated a number of injured people to hospitals in Srinagar and are now concentrating on providing logistics and support directly to affected people in different parts of Kashmir," air force spokesman Mahesh Upasini said.
But none of the massive capability of the Indian armed forces would be available to the devastated towns and cities on the Pakistan side, many of which are clearly visible from vantage points on the Indian side of the LoC.
India's armed forces acquired a reputation for effective disaster relief following the Dec. 26 tsunami, when its naval vessels were the first to arrive with relief and supplies in Sri Lanka and Aceh in Indonesia.
While India awaits word that its help would be acceptable, relief has begun to pour into Pakistan from the United States, Japan, France, Turkey, Australia and from the European Union in the shape of funds, equipment, sniffer dogs, rescue teams and police personnel.
Chenoy said it would have been difficult for Pakistan to accept help from India at a time when it had brought in international arbitration to settle a dispute over the sharing of the waters of the Indus River and its tributaries, which flow from Indian Kashmir to Pakistan's irrigated agricultural lands.
But where joint efforts at disaster relief could have added to confidence building between the two countries, the tardy response from Islamabad to Prime Minister Singh's offer of help could make things more difficult.
"Protocol would make it difficult for India to repeat an offer it has already made," observed Chenoy.
The earthquake struck on the weekend after India's Foreign Minister Natwar Singh spent four days in Islamabad working on a joint document saying that the two countries were moving towards demilitarizing the Siachen glacier, "the world's highest and costliest battlefield," which falls in Kashmir.
Maintaining troops on the Siachen glacier, perched 6,300 meters above sea level, costs India more than $1 million per day, besides loss of human life caused by exposure to high altitudes and temperatures that average minus 40 degrees Celsius.
India insists that its present positions on the strategic glacier, which also overlooks the Karakoram highway in China, be formally marked before it withdraws its troops, but says it is confident of a deal at the next round of the composite dialogues in January.
Since November 2003, there have been no hostilities or exchanges of artillery fire either at Siachen or the rest of the LoC, allowing a series of "composite dialogues" that take into account the totality of India-Pakistan relations rather than Kashmir alone.
The ceasefire was seen as a major breakthrough in difficult bilateral relations --considering the two nuclear-armed countries spent most of 2002 teetering on the brink of war -- and has already facilitated the revival of bus, rail and air links between the two countries.
In April, the rivaling neighbors began running a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad with the aim of minimizing hardships to Kashmiri families divided since 1947 by the LoC.
The two countries have already fought several wars over Kashmir, the latest of them at Kargil on the LoC in 1999, which saw the downing of each other's military aircraft and threats to use nuclear weapons.
The U.S. helped negotiate the end of the brief but bloody Kargil hostilities, but hopes of peace faltered in December 2001 when a suicide squad tried to storm India's parliament building in a bomb-laden car.
India blamed that attack on Pakistan, just as it has consistently accused its neighbor of arming and supporting armed "jihadist" insurgency in Muslim-majority Indian Kashmir, which has claimed more than 50,000 lives since it surfaced in 1989.
Indeed, on Sunday, the Indian army shot dead eight armed militants in the town of Gulmarg who were believed to have infiltrated the LoC just two days earlier, according to army spokesman Col. H. Juneja.
For its part, Pakistan has denied any role in the insurgency but admits to providing moral and political support for Kashmiris in their "struggle for self-determination." While the peace talks and confidence-building measures have been making marked progress, India has continued to accuse Pakistan of openly running training camps for militant groups in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, where the earthquake has wrought its worst devastation.
"The last thing that Pakistan would want is for personnel of the Indian army to be walking all over an area in which several militant groups are known to be based," said an Indian army analyst.
The Aman Setu (Peace Bridge) across the LoC, on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road, was badly damaged by the earthquake and an army spokesman said on Sunday that the bus service has been temporarily suspended.
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