Attacks renew Kashmir tensions

Indian and Pakistani leaders are meeting in Nepal this week in an effort to defuse the confrontation.

Mahatma Gandhi once called Kashmir "the only ray of hope" in colonial India - for its tolerance among religious groups. Twenty years ago, now-yellowing tourist brochures called Kashmir "the happy valley" - an idyll of lakes, mountains, and floating gardens.

But today, with the world's highest ratio of soldiers to civilians, and with an insurgency that became a "jihad" in the late 1990s - Indian-controlled Kashmir is a valley of sorrow, the main focus of tensions between India and Pakistan.

Governments in New Delhi and Islamabad come and go. Yet the Himalayan tract of land - scene of a half-century ownership dispute between the two nuclear neighbors - continues in a bitter comeuppance of guns, militancy, and killing, with no end in sight.

Now, just as dangerous tensions between the two sides appear to be receding, an attack on a state building in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, and continued heavy shelling by Indian troops into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir - has again raised hackles. In recent days, the dizzying escalation of threats against Pakistan, precipitated by a suicide bombing in New Delhi on Dec. 13 that left 14 dead in the Indian parliament, seemed to abate. The suicide bomber allegedly had Kashmiri and Pakistani support.

After the grisly December event, which Indian leaders openly and resolutely compare to the Sept. 11 cataclysm in the US, Indian leader Atal Behari Vajpayee responded with the largest troop deployments on the border in 30 years, and a recall of India's diplomatic mission to Pakistan.

"The Indians are angry. They are fed up. They don't want to take it anymore; and they want to teach Pakistan a so-called lesson," says one Western government source in New Delhi.

With a regional conference in Nepal this week that the heads of both states will attend, and with US and other Western officials exerting "maximum" pressure for a step down from confrontation, according to Washington sources, both sides are under pressure to end the brinkmanship.

In a New Year's message, Prime Minister Vajpayee changed the dynamics of recent weeks by speaking of the possibility of dialogue with Pakistan, including in the subject of Kashmir. He and Pakistan leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf also continued the 11-year tradition of exchanging lists of nuclear installations in their respective countries.

Last summer, the first summit between Vajpayee and Musharraf, held in the city of Agra, broke down - mainly over disagreement about Kashmir.

(One sign India might not be preparing for war but is, instead, making an international case as a victim of the war on terror, was buried in news details this week: both the chief of the Indian Air Force, Marshall Dipnis, and India's naval chief, Sushil Kumar, went ahead with scheduled retirements on Jan. 1. Were India planning a cross-border operation, sources say, the two men would have stayed on.)

"The gradual, stepped-up pressure by [Prime Minister] Vajpayee was aimed at Pakistan, at the US to do something about Pakistan, and at his domestic audience," says E. Sridharan, a political scientist with the University of Pennsylvania in New Delhi. "He [Vajpayee] had to show Indians that this time it was necessary to go beyond words. Now things are cooling."

But are they?

"The Indians are waiting. But they aren't thinking about the long-term ramifications of a cross-border action," says the Western government source. "This is dangerous."

The Kashmir dispute, rising out of the 1947 partition of India, when the ruling Hindu maharajah opted in a pressure-filled moment to join India - against the assumed wishes of the Muslim majority population - is the stuff of diplomatic lore, doctoral theses, and three wars.

After the partition, Pakistan received a UN resolution for a referendum by Kashmiris about which side they preferred. (In an emotional speech in Srinagar, in the 1950s, Jahawarlal Nehru, India's first leader also promised a vote.) But a vote has never taken place, and India's cardinal position on Kashmir is that the subject is an internal matter.

For Pakistanis, including schoolchildren, Kashmir is taught as an integral part of a national identity - that was never allowed to develop and flourish.

Musharraf has said, while in office, that there are distinctions between Kashmeri "freedom fighters" engaged in a just cause or legitimate "jihad" against military targets - and "terrorists." India has rejected the argument - and points to some five militant groups operating from Pakistan as terrorists. (The US last week put two of them, Jaish-e-Mohammad, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, on its list of terrorist organizations.)

A tiny minority in Pakistan argues that while fighting for Kashmir may be historically justified, in practice it is costly and debilitating. "Kashmir may be a noble cause, but not at the expense of our nation and our future development," says former Army general Talat Masood, a consultant in Islamabad.

One point rarely made in either Delhi or Islamabad, is the persistent and overwhelming popularity in Kashmir itself for independence. The sentiment is often derided as fanciful. But much of the violent insurgency that began in the late 1980s against India by militant young men (known as "the boys") was a result, say historians in Srinagar, of the eviseration of a decades-long and politically sophisticated movement for a Kashmeri right to self-determination. T

"A lot of Indian politicians talk today as if the militant struggles of Kashmir are somehow Islamic in nature," says a university historian in Srinagar. "The Kashmir struggle long predates Islamic movements like the Taliban."

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