The nuclear temperature in South Asia has been set aflame. After nearly 25 years, India conducted its second round of nuclear tests May 11.
United States non-proliferation policy which aims to "restrain" nuclear ambitions in the region is failing as India and Pakistan compete to exhibit nuclear prowess.
The newly installed Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is abiding by its campaign pledge to declare India a nuclear weapon state.
Aside from its May 11 nuclear tests, the Indian government has allegedly sought Russian collaboration to build sea-launched Sagarika ballistic missiles.
On April 6 Pakistan accelerated the nuclear race with its own tests of the 1,500-kilometer-range Ghauri surface missile.
The US imposed sanctions on Pakistan's Khan Research Labs for importing missile parts for the Ghauri missile from North Korea.
Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth's visit to South Asia last month, to express "concern" over these developments, and to prepare for President Clinton's upcoming visit, obviously made no headway.
Under the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act of 1994, the US is now legally required to impose sanctions on India for its nuclear tests.
But US efforts to bring India and Pakistan into the nuclear nonproliferation regime may be on the verge of complete collapse.
If the arms escalation continues, India may deploy the Prithvi missile or test the long-range Agni and Surya missiles. Pakistan now has another excuse to break the nuclear taboo and go for its own test of its nuclear arsenal.
A widely cited 1997 report by the Council on Foreign Relations recommended that the US seek to dissuade India and Pakistan from pursuing their nuclear ambitions through enhanced economic "engagement."
But given overwhelming public support for the bomb in both India and Pakistan, no government in either country can hope to make any compromise on the nuclear issue.
And the atmosphere for compromise is now even more poisoned than before.
RECENT violence by fundamentalist Indian groups, such as the Shiv Sena (Hindu fundamentalists dominant in Bombay), only reinforces the need for the bomb in the public mind.
Last year, a landmark, in-depth study of public attitudes toward nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan, conducted by Notre Dame University, found that more than 60 percent of the elite in both countries support maintaining undeclared nuclear capabilities, while more than 30 percent prefer an overt nuclear posture.
Pakistanis and Indians see nuclear weapons as insurance in a hostile region.
Support for nuclear weapons programs is even higher among the poor classes and in rural areas.
However, US efforts toward nonproliferation in South Asia are confined to a few summer workshops for young scholars from the region, and import and export of scholars to US think tanks.
US foundations have spent thousands of dollars annually preaching to the choir of arms restraint advocates in the region, but have not coordinated their activities effectively, and have had little measurable impact.
It is time to create more institutionalized structures in New Delhi and Islamabad that can support indigenous research and outreach - including a focus on policymakers and the masses, not merely elites - to promote peace between the two neighboring nations.
After 50 years of post-independence animosity, three full-scale wars, and two lingering border disputes, there is not a single institution either in India or in Pakistan working expressly toward improving India-Pakistan relations.
Two semi-government institutes currently operate in Islamabad: One is headed by a retired Army officer, the other remains under an ethnic-Iranian chairman known as the "red mullah." Neither center produces any quality research, and both toe the government's line.
The situation is only somewhat better in India: Several research centers exist, but their analysts are pressing India's new government to adopt an assertive nuclear posture.
Institutes need to be established that address nuclear weapon programs as drains on both countries' economies and development prospects, not in terms of US security concerns.
IF one or more independent peace institutes can be established in each country, the Indian and Pakistani publics would have an alternate source of information about their governments' nuclear activities.
Indians and Pakistanis might still argue that their countries should not join an international treaty that allows some countries nuclear weapons but not others. But at least the publics would have a more informed voice.
Rather than rely merely on pedantic discourse or sanctions, the US should promote institutions within India and Pakistan that can foster dialogue between the countries and may provide indigenous voices against nuclear proliferation.
* Farah Zahra, a former Pakistani journalist, is a research fellow at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.