Natural catastrophes can help to heal
political divisions, but in the case of the
Pakistani earthquake, the healing is slow in
coming. Venu Menon reports
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is battling
criticism that his Army has focused on rebuilding
defences against its nuclear rival India instead
of rescuing civilians in Pakistan-controlled
Kashmir, worst-hit in the October 8 earthquake
that left more than over 40,000 people dead and a
It is an indication that entrenched priorities die
hard in the troubled
After the quake, calls for a ceasefire were raised
on both sides of the Line of Control, which
divides the neighbours, prompting comparisons with
Indonesia and Sri Lanka, where Government troops
and separatist guerrillas agreed to a peace deal
after the tsunami last December.
But hopes that South Asia’s deadliest earthquake
would unite the region’s longstanding rivals were
soon dashed when co-operation on aid broke down.
Now faced with a mammoth humanitarian crisis,
Musharraf has made a surprise offer, swiftly
welcomed by India, to allow people from the Indian
side to come to the aid of their fellow Kashmiris.
“We will allow every Kashmiri to come across the
Line of Control and assist in the reconstruction
effort,” Musharraf said at a news conference in
Pakistan Kashmir’s shattered city of Muzaffarabad
The President said he also wanted to ease the way
for political leaders on both sides to visit and
interact as part of the drive to resurrect what is
now a death zone.
An Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman promptly
welcomed the offer, asking Pakistan to give
details of how it could happen. With the political
will there, it will now be up to bureaucrats to
work out the terms of transit.
A well-known separatist leader, who wants Kashmir
independent of both New Delhi and Islamabad,
endorsed Musharraf’s proposal.
“ Kashmiris want to help their brethren,” said
Yasin Malik, head of the Jammu and Kashmir
Liberation Front ( JKLF ) in Indian Kashmir.
“ I have already said politics should take a back
seat and Kashmiris be allowed to help each other,”
Malik said in Islamabad, on his way to
Muzaffarabad with an aid consignment.
At he beginning of last year India and Pakistan
embarked on a peace process to resolve all issues,
including their core dispute over Kashmir, which
both claim. But progress has been slow.
After the earthquake, it was only after initial
reluctance that Pakistan accepted 25 tonnes of
food, medicine, tents, blankets and plastic sheets
from India. However, it rejected India’s offer of
helicopters. Originally, Pakistan also ruled out
joint military relief operations in the disputed
India and Pakistan have conflicting claims on the
mountainous province dating back to 1947, when the
subcontinent was partitioned following the end of
British colonial rule.
The two countries fought wars over Kashmir in
1947,1965,and 1971. Pakistan annexed a portion of
the territory. The Line of Control was established
as a ceasefire line and de facto border, even as
each country has actively pursued its claim on the
Since the late 1980s , Kashmir has witnessed a
separatist movement that spawned a conflict
claiming more than 60,000 lives. India blames
Pakistan for fuelling the insurgency, a charge
The quake struck close to the Line of Control,
inflicting casualties on both sides of the border.
It had a severe impact on militant capability on
the Pakistani side, as training camps disappeared
The Jihad Council, a consortium of 14 militant
groups based in Pakistan-administered Kashmir,
decided to suspend its operations temporarily. The
council chief and
commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen group, Syed
Sahabuddin, called on his cadres to suspend
military operations and extend relief to quake
But analysts suspect the lull is only temporary,
akin to post-tsunami peace initiatives by Tamil
Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka, which proved to be
Indian military officials, quoted by the BBC,
confirm the truce call by militants but claim
there is no let-up in separatist violence in
Kashmir since the quake struck a week ago.
A senior Indian army official is quoted as saying
the quake has not affected “infiltration” from the
Pakistan side of the Line of Control.
Nevertheless, ties between the two countries have
improved in the past two years, leading to more
contact across the Line of Control, highlighted by
a bus service linking the disputed parts of
A trial run of the service linking key cities in
Pakistan and India was put off following the
The earthquake has left a power vacuum in its wake
that Islamic groups are seeking to fill.
With the Pakistan military and international aid
agencies virtually calling off rescue efforts, the
militant groups have stepped in to fill the void,
taking over the relief effort in areas beyond the
reach of aid agencies.
Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an offshoot of the Islamic group
Lashkar-e-Toiba, has earned the goodwill of quake
victims in Pakistan-administered Kashmir by making
its presence felt where the Government relief
agencies are invisible. It runs a network of
ambulances, operating theatres, wireless phones
and tireless volunteers. Crucially, Jamaat has
earned the distinction of being the only relief
agency to use boats to ferry the dead and wounded.
More controversially, among those overseeing the
relief operations of the Jamaat is orthopaedic
surgeon Dr Amir Aziz, who was arrested for
treating Osama bin Laden.
If the militant outfits on the Pakistani side of
the Line of Control suffered extensive damage in
the quake, they gained political leverage in its
The earthquake is certain to have a political
fallout for Musharraf.There is a precedent for
natural disasters affecting politics in Pakistan.
The 1970 Bhola cyclone, which killed more than
half a million people in East Pakistan ( now
Bangladesh) undermined the credibility of General
Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan. And the 1974 earthquake
that ravaged the northeastern Pakistani town of
Patan, killing 5000, cast a cloud over General
Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.
General Musharraf has apologised to the Pakistani
public for his Government’s slow response to the
natural disaster.His credibility rests on how far
and fast he moves now.
___ additional reporting, Reuters
The New Zealand Herald * Thursday, October 20,