After Nuclear Tests, It's Hotter in Paradise

Concerns over nuclear escalation focus on Kashmir in the Himalayas, where Pakistan, India have claims.

No place could contrast more with the thought of nuclear conflict.

A land of fertile valleys, mountain lakes, and bustling towns, where fruitsellers pile carts high with cherries and boys play cricket, Kashmir ought to be the preserve of poets, lovers, and gentle souls.

Tranquil on the surface, this corner of South Asia is the source of a 50-year-old territorial dispute between the world's two newest avowed nuclear powers, India and Pakistan. In quieter days a paradise for tourists, Kashmir is now a hot spot for strategists. "If the world community and especially the United Nations do not take notice of this grave situation, then the next time India and Pakistan clash there will be a nuclear war," warns Syed Ahmed Shah Geelani, an Islamic political leader in Srinagar, the capital of India's Jammu and Kashmir Province.

Still, the prospect of war seems remote, although assessments depend on perspective and agenda.

India, waging a successful campaign of attrition against insurgents and separatists, wants the world to think that the situation here is calm. "You can't lower your guard," says Girish Saxena, the governor of the province. But he says his main task is to "consolidate normalcy."

Mr. Geelani and other separatists in the province, who oppose Indian rule, want outsiders to think that the two countries are nearing crisis, their leaders' fingers on the button. They and the Pakistanis say that international intervention would work against India in any attempt to resolve this complex and lengthy dispute.

Governor Saxena's is an odd sort of normalcy. At the home of one of Saxena's officials, Amitabh Mattoo greets guests in the spacious, flower-fringed house where he grew up. Alongside beds of roses and yellow irises are sentry boxes with soldiers peering over the wall at the street outside. Mr. Mattoo's father, the government official, barely escaped kidnapping by militants a few years ago.

"There is this peace,"

says Mattoo the younger, who happens to be a political scientist who studies his home region. "But discontent seems to be as high as it was before."

While the security situation has improved since a few years ago, the ingredients of lingering unrest remain: a government that maintains order through force, insurgents who have outside support, and a populace growing more estranged from its rulers.

Mostly Muslim since the 14th century, the province has grown more so as Hindus and those of other faiths have fled.

India's government, meanwhile, has grown more Hindu with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Its leaders, one of whom is prime minister in a coalition government, have practiced a brand of politics that identifies Hinduism, India's dominant religion, with nationalism.

The nuclear tests have brought new attention to Kashmir, but analysts here and in New Delhi argue that the danger of war hasn't increased. Saxena, formerly the head of India's foreign intelligence service, says his government has known for years that Pakistan had the bomb.

"I don't think there will be a war between India and Pakistan - not over Kashmir, not over anything," says Professor Mattoo, who teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Even so, the prospects for a negotiated solution seem dim. The conventional wisdom in India is that the status quo will gel into a permanent solution, with the "line of control" that divides the province eventually being recognized as the international border. Losing any more of Kashmir is untenable for India, since it would call into question the unity of a huge and diverse nation often riven by separatist claims.

India refuses to hold a referendum, which it would likely lose, on the grounds of a 1972 agreement with Pakistan that called for a negotiated solution.

Pakistani leaders may see some benefit in using an insurgency in Kashmir to destabilize a more powerful neighbor to protect Muslim interests in the province. More immediately, the Pakistani political establishment is determined not to let India formalize the status quo - not without some territorial and political concessions.

Sensing eventual victory, India is also adamantly opposed to outside intervention. Perhaps the greatest danger, in terms of potential nuclear conflict, is the risk that religious extremists will consolidate power in either country.

The good news is that in previous wars, India and Pakistan have been relatively restrained, limiting conflict to military targets and avoiding injury to civilians. "On the basis of the record, it would seem to me hard to argue that the armies are going to run off and use the bomb," says Philip Oldenburg, a political scientist at Columbia University in New York.

Saxena and other officials argue that the nuclear dimension will make the two sides more responsible, not less, because of the costs of nuclear conflict.

When pressed, even someone like Geelani, the Islamic leader, says the chance of war isn't more than 50 percent.

But he urges his visitors and the world to think about Kashmir.

"You people are thinking that if there is no war, there is no problem," he says. "I think this is not the right approach. You must consider the human problem.

"We read every morning in the paper that 10 homes have been gutted, 10 people have been killed, some women have been gang raped, so many persons have been arrested.... Are these not problems?"

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