NEW DELHI — THE standoff between India and Pakistan pivots on militants in the streets of the once-idyllic, now strife-torn Kashmir Valley. There, Indian security forces are locked in a struggle with Muslim separatists battling for an independent Kashmir. India claims its tough crackdown, launched last January and criticized by some human rights activists as harsh and repressive, is turning the tide.
Last week, India and Pakistan agreed to defuse tension to avoid war. However, within days the war of words began to heat up again with each country saying the other was trying to create a ``war psychosis.''
Analysts say a new explosion of separatist violence could unnerve the struggling governments of Indian Prime Minister V.P. Singh and Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and once again force then to play to the frenzy that Kashmir historically stirs.
A misstep could send the two countries spinning into another war, this one longer and more costly than before. India, secular but predominantly Hindu, and mainly Muslim Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir since independence from Britain in 1947.
``Everything now depends on the situation on the ground in the Kashmir Valley,'' says S. Nihal Singh, a political commentator. ``If India can control and improve the situation, that also will stabilize Pakistan, which won't feel the need to up the ante.''
Since taking power five months ago as prime minister, Mr. Singh has been cornered by escalating violence in Kashmir and Punjab, two sensitive states bordering Pakistan.
In Punjab where Sikh militants want a separate state, Singh's promising political initiative last December vanished in a spree of bombings and massacres. More than 600 people have died in the state since then.
Recently, in a controversial move, the government extended longstanding central rule in Punjab despite Singh's pledge to hold new elections there.
In Kashmir, the prime minister's good intentions have floundered on rising militancy and severe measures to curb the insurgency. Hundreds of Kashmiris have died at the hands of security forces under the bare-knuckled regime of Governor Jagmohan, bringing criticism at home and abroad for human rights abuses.
Pakistan has called for a plebiscite in the disputed state which is divided by a United Nations controlled cease-fire line. India, which has not allowed the vote, says that Pakistan is supporting the militants and meddling in an internal Indian issue.
The Muslim extremists have mounted a growing insurgency, unleashing a spate of kidnappings, assassinations, and guerrilla attacks. That has inflamed the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which provides crucial support to the prime minister and exercises growing political clout in India.
``The BJP is holding V.P. Singh captive on Kashmir,'' says a Western diplomat. ``At the same time, this government is genuinely frustrated by what is happening in Punjab and Kashmir.''