Until last month, Kashmir seemed just another obscure, intractable ethnic conflict. But now that India and Pakistan have tested nuclear weapons, the dispute over their border region of lush valleys and jagged Himalayan peaks has become a matter of urgent concern. Three wars have been fought over Kashmir in the last 50 years. The United States and other countries can help defuse tensions, but India and Pakistan must make a new attempt to sort out their differences now that these divisions could become the pretext for a nuclear war.
The conflict over Kashmir began with Britain's hasty retreat from empire, which left India and Pakistan to fight over its status. That fight has since become an emotional test of principle and identity. As India's only Muslim state, Jammu and Kashmir, as it is officially called, has been torn by an insur-rection that has cost 20,000 lives in the last decade and pinned down a major portion of India's armed forces. This month, guerrillas seeking independence for the state have ambushed two weddings, leaving more than two dozen people dead, and blown up a train.
India argues that ceding Kashmir would in effect repudiate its efforts to forge a multi-ethnic state. Pakistan rejects India's possession of Kash-mir as illegitimate, a freak of history that resulted because the state's Hindu maharajah chose India at the time of independence.
Since the beginning of the dispute, the United States and other outsiders have backed the United Nations' demand for a plebiscite. India rejects that approach, and many Muslims in other parts of the country fear that if Kashmir were somehow lost, they would be subjected to violent retaliation by Hindus. Most surveys show that the Kashmiris themselves want independence. But Pakistan, which controls a chunk of the state on its own, is no more interested in losing territory to a newly independent country than India is.
In the post-cold-war era, a handful of ethnic conflicts have been eased by negotiations that could provide an example for Kashmir. As proposed by independent experts, the first priority would be to end violence and begin disarming Kashmiri rebels and Indian forces while Pakistan withdraws its support for the insurrection. Kashmir should itself move toward more autonomy, if not outright independence. Ultimately, some political relationship with both India and Pakistan could be negotiated -along the lines of the recent agreement in Northern Ireland. Another essential ingredient would be a pullback by Indian and Pakistani forces on the border, a cease-fire and exchanges of military information between the two countries. They should aim as well for a freeze of any plans to deploy nuclear weapons or test missiles that could be used to deliver them. These steps would not only assure both countries that they can resolve their differences peacefully. They would also ease the world's fear that a remote but savage ethnic and religious conflict could deteriorate into a nuclear exchange with global consequences. Russia and China have close ties to India and Pakistan respectively, and they can join with the United States in helping to ease tensions. But in the end it is India and Pakistan that must learn to talk to each other and move toward a more trusting relationship.