When Muslims worldwide observe the fasting month of Ramadan, it's a time devoted to prayers in anticipation of heavenly blessings.
But since 1989, when an armed insurgency began in Kashmir, those blessings have hardly been a source of comfort in the predominantly Muslim territory - until now.
The government of Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee last month unilaterally announced a pre-Ramadan cease-fire for the territory divided between India and Pakistan. It was the first in a series of moves between the two countries this year that have brought the hope of peace to an embattled region. On Wednesday, Mr. Vajpayee extended the cease-fire beyond Ramadan, which ends next week.
Pakistan, with whom India has fought two major wars over the division of Kashmir in the past 53 years, reciprocated on both of India's peace overtures. The government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf offered a Ramadan cease-fire, which meant that Pakistani troops were ordered not to fire across the line of control, or LOC, an otherwise routine matter between the two sides. This week, Vajpayee's announcement was met by a Pakistani statement that it had recalled an unspecified number of troops from the LOC to rear military positions.
For many South Asia watchers, the tit-for-tat peace overtures mark an important step. Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan are a constant source of concern for many Western governments. Analysts refer to Kashmir as the world's likeliest nuclear flashpoint, in view of the large troop deployments on both sides that at certain spots are less than a football field's length apart along the Himalayan terrain.
According to Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political-science professor at Lahore's Punjab University, the two countries are showing signs of conciliation mainly because of the continuing international pressures. "India and Pakistan can no longer ignore the global fears of another military exchange between them leading to a nuclear exchange," he says.
Other leading analysts welcome the recent moves, but warn that a new Indo-Pakistan peace process would be a very fragile one. "You have to acknowledge that even if this is the beginning ..., there will be reversals," says Teresita C. Schaffer, director of the South Asia Program at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Peace processes worldwide have gone through bumps on the road."
Senior Western diplomats, however, say that the new peace round is encouraging, as it has so far shown no signs of repeating some of the mistakes that quickly derailed previous peace attempts.
In August, the Hizbul Mujahideen, Kashmir's largest group of separatist fighters, announced a cease-fire in its operations against Indian troops. But that attempt derailed when Mujahideen representatives insisted that Pakistan, which has traditionally backed the Kashmiri freedom struggle, must have a seat at the negotiating table. India has refused tripartite negotiations with Pakistan and representatives of Kashmiri groups.
Analysts say that India and Pakistan may be finding the stakes becoming increasingly high if they continue to leave the Kashmir dispute unresolved. "For Pakistan, there's a horrendous financial cost of maintaining a large military, because a third of its budget is spent on national defense, and that's only because of the dispute with India," says Marika Vicziany, director of the Melbourne-based National Center for South Asian Studies in Australia. "For India, the cost is mainly that of a serious international image problem. Many people want to know why a country like India, with its thriving IT revolution and good future economic prospects, is so caught up on Kashmir and cannot resolve it."
Many factors could force the two sides to retreat to their previously hostile postures. In India, the more hardline nationalists among Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) are certain to continue demanding a tough posture against Pakistan, while General Musharraf is equally certain to be accused of a sell-out by the country's Islamic militant groups. But Western diplomats say that despite the risks, the two men for now appear determined to try giving peace a chance.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society