ONE of the most fruitful and unexpected developments from the United Nations' recent anniversary celebration was the meeting between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India and President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan. The press greeted it as a significant first step toward a rapprochement between these sister countries of the Indian subcontinent. Recognizing the international consequences of their actions, both leaders spoke of ``potentially far-reaching transformations'' that might follow. This is especially heartening, because it places the matter in a global context from the beginning, where it belongs. Tensions between India and Pakistan are not just regional; the United States and the Soviet Union are heavily involved.
``Far-reaching transformations'' will not come easily. Both leaders will have to overlook four decades of hostility -- a difficult task, but not at all impossible if they can focus on how much their countries have in common. India and Pakistan share a centuries-old cultural and political heritage, and they have the same national aspirations: prosperity, stability, peace.
It is not political differences that prevent rapprochement, but the mutual suspicion and mistrust of the recent past. If India and Pakistan can bury that, they can together build a prosperous and secure subcontinent. One bold stroke could clear the air and make progress possible: the signing of a nonaggression pact. Such an accord would give each country time to evaluate the other's goodwill while the two worked on areas of disagreement.
What do they stand to lose? India and Pakistan have run the risk of armed conflict for decades. They should now run the risk of trusting each other.
Their success would be a great service to the world, demonstrating that nations politically at odds can still cooperate to ensure their greatest welfare. If they cannot muster the will and the courage to accomplish this, however, President Zia and Prime Minister Gandhi face a confrontation that threatens the whole globe. Another war between India and Pakistan would not only take millions of lives and shatter both economies; it would also draw in the superpowers and the Muslim world, raising the fearful possibility of a third-world nuclear exchange.
The American government can do a good deal to encourage these two countries to move closer together.
As one US official noted, President Reagan's meeting with Zia and Gandhi was marked by ``a clear recognition that [rapprochement] is now going to be high on everybody's agenda.'' We must do what we can to keep it there, through US encouragement and influence.
We can stop pouring billions of dollars' worth of sophisticated armaments into the region, fueling an arms race hardly conducive to an atmosphere of cooperation.
We can use our enormous influence with Pakistan to stop its drive to develop an atomic bomb. This is a matter for global concern, and a good deal can be done. If reports of Chinese technical assistance to the Pakistani bomb venture are true, is it in anyone's interest for the US to sign a nuclear cooperation pact with China? As this newspaper editorialized recently, the agreement should be tightened or even rejected.
If US leaders could see the Indian subcontinent as a region with its own political integrity and significance, and not as simply another arena for superpower rivalry, that one step would go a long way toward stability. India and Pakistan need a measure of freedom if they are to agree on how to disagree in peace.
With Pakistan nearly in possession of a nuclear bomb, and Gandhi under pressure to allow India to follow suit, time is running out on the Indian subcontinent. The ``first step'' taken in New York is a long-awaited opportunity to secure a permanent peace. They -- we -- cannot afford to waste it. Let us hope that the move receives full support from Washington, and that the second step, a nonaggression pact, will follow quickly.
Eknath Easwaran is the author of ``Gandhi the Man'' and ``A Man to Match His Mountains: Badshah Khan, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam.''