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As the war drags on to a slow and gory conclusion on the Himalayan heights, India has an unprecedented opportunity to seize the moral high ground and take the Kashmir problem right off the international agenda.

For the first time ever, there is universal understanding of India’s position and praise for India’s restraint in the face of grave provocation. The core facts are now broadly accepted. Sometime within the last six months to two years, the Pakistani military began preparations for launching armed incursions across the Line of Control in the disputed territory. What remains unclear is whether they did so as a rogue force in Pakistani politics, or with the approval of the government. Their motives are also open to speculation. Perhaps they feared that normalized relations would strip away their privileged status and dominance in the affairs of state. Perhaps they expected that a caretaker Indian government would not be able to coordinate a forceful response.

Perhaps they hoped to end up in a win-win situation: either succeeding in altering the LoC permanently to their strategic advantage by occupying the commanding heights and cutting off a major portion of Indian Kashmir in the northeast, or ensuring that the conflict becomes internationalized and India is forced to accept outside mediation.

Instead, Pakistan finds itself trapped in a lose-lose situation. The conflict has indeed drawn international attention, but on India’s terms. The United States, Britain, Russia and most of the international community have made it clear that they blame Pakistan for the flareup and want the infiltrators to withdraw across the LoC. They have recognized the ploy of nuclear blackmail and concluded that to take heed of this call would be to reward the instigator of the crisis.

China has moved from an initial neutrality — already a setback for its traditional ally Pakistan — to an alignment with the international mainstream in confirming the sanctity of the LoC. Rarely has Pakistan been so isolated.

Pakistani miscalculations are only one part of the explanation for the international response. Just as important is the perception that India had taken a calculated risk in initiating the Delhi-Lahore bus diplomacy in March. The infiltration must have been planned and executed even during that period. India’s show of restraint since then, despite heavy casualties, has drawn universal praise.

The world has underlined its conviction that the LoC is sacrosanct. India could now issue a unilateral declaration converting the LoC into the international border. It could call upon Pakistan to enter into talks for a mutual pullback of troops to 5 and then 10 km from that border, to be followed by a general demilitarization in the 10-20 km corridor.

In a recent article in the International Herald Tribune, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto made an astonishing confession. Holding Indian-Pakistani relations hostage to the single issue of Kashmir had been a mistake, she wrote. The cause of mutual peace and prosperity would have been advanced by consolidating relations on other fronts while shelving the Kashmir dispute without prejudice to either side’s case.

That remains the best course. Ironically, Pakistan would have gained more if it had followed such a policy over the last 52 years. Mature democracies have no stomach for forcing one group of people, at the point of a gun, to stay in a country against their will. By history and geography, the fate of the two countries is tied together. They can work to improve the living standards of their two peoples, or they can fight to keep each other at the bottom of the international league.

A caretaker government such as India’s is in no position, legally or politically, to take major policy initiatives. The only way for this to be salable in the marketplace of Indian politics would be through the forging of an all-party consensus. The Congress Party, having overseen the biggest rise in the number of poor, illiterate and malnourished people in human history over 40 years of misgovernment, has a responsibility to offer a better future. The Bharatiya Janata Party, having opened the Pandora’s box of nuclearization on the subcontinent, has a responsibility to solve the conflict on terms that offer an honorable compromise to the historic enemy.

Will India’s ruling class have the grace, wit and unity of purpose to convert the fleeting praise of the international community into lasting gratitude for a peace grasped where danger threatened?

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