Crisis in Kashmir

KASHMIR is one of the world's persistent hot spots, and the temperature shot up even more last week when a fire destroyed most of the ancient city of Charar Sharif, including a revered Muslim shrine. Both sides in the conflict -- the Indian Army and Muslim insurgents -- accuse each other of starting the blaze.

The answer to ''Who did it?'' may be hard to come by, but the question of what happens next has been addressed by India's Prime Minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao. He has said that local elections in Kashmir will go forward next month as planned.

It's not clear that the prime minister can act on his words, given the animosity felt toward Indian security forces by the mainly Muslim Kashmiris and the threats of militants to prevent any voting.

Since the independence of India in 1947, Kashmir has been a magnet for violence. Two of the three Indo-Pakistan wars directly involved Kashmir, and India fought an additional war with China in the region. What was once a semi-autonomous princely state is now split into three: India's state of Jammu and Kashmir, plus two other sections under Pakistani and Chinese control.

Skirmishing between Indian and Pakistani forces along Kashmir's ill-defined borders is common. Faced with a growing insurgency in Kashmir, India decided to impose direct rule from New Delhi in 1990. The Army and other Indian security units have had a free hand there. Civil government has withered.

In the course of this deepening crisis, the war in neighboring Afghanistan has narrowed into a civil conflict, but the weaponry and zealotry it spawned spilled into Kashmir. One insurgent faction wants Islamic rule and unity with Pakistan. A second wants an independent Kashmir.

India is in no mood to compromise with insurgents of either persuasion. Mr. Rao wants to take the reasonable path of easing Kashmir back toward democratic governance, but he is beset by nationalist opponents who want an even harsher crackdown in Kashmir. And many Indians worry that any move toward autonomy there would heighten separatist movements in other parts of their country.

The stakes in Kashmir are larger than regional stability. This Himalayan outpost could spark cataclysmic war, since both India and Pakistan are strongly suspected of having developed nuclear weapons. A political solution, giving Kashmiris some say about their future, must be urged from every side.

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