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India’s reluctance to support increased autonomy for the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir is understandable. Indian leaders fear that giving more power to local leaders would set a precedent that could lead to the unraveling of the whole country. That is a possibility, but any sprawling state that is home to a huge portion of the world’s population is susceptible to such fissures — look at Russia, Indonesia or Yugoslavia. And that last example is particularly appropriate: The national government’s failure to accommodate local political demands will guarantee that Kashmir explodes and could lead to the outcome that Indian leaders fear most.

Kashmir occupies a special place in South Asia. Parts of the territory are claimed by India, Pakistan and China. New Delhi and Islamabad have twice gone to war over the state. Even after the two governments exploded nuclear devices in 1998, they sparred a year later over the territory.

The source of the trouble is Kashmir’s predominantly Muslim population. Pakistan, a Muslim nation, believes that Kashmiris belong with their coreligionists. Indians claim that the Muslim-dominated state is critical to their country’s multiethnic identity. They argue that if the central government yielded to Kashmir’s demands for more power, other states would do the same and India could disintegrate. Others claim that demands for autonomy are merely the first step in the march toward independence. Nationalist Hindus, an increasingly vocal — if not more powerful — group in Indian politics, are loath to see Muslims with more power, no matter what the ultimate objective.

All of those reasons contributed to the Indian Cabinet’s rejection earlier this month of a proposal that had been passed by the Kashmir government. It called for complete autonomy for the state, except in matters related to finance, defense and communications. The Cabinet of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said the proposal was a first step toward secession. In response, the National Conference, the ruling party in Kashmir, is now debating withdrawal from Mr. Vajpayee’s coalition government.

Leaving the Cabinet would not threaten the national government, but it will lead to greater polarization of Kashmir’s politics. That, not secession, is the real danger in the region. More than 25,000 people in Kashmir have been killed in fighting linked to an insurgency against Indian rule that began in 1989. In the last week alone, the violence claimed eight more lives. In the last few days, four Buddhist monks were killed by suspected militants, a development that hints at yet more tensions in the multiethnic enclave.

India claims that the insurgency is Pakistan’s doing, a charge that the government in Islamabad denies. The rebels get various forms of support from Pakistan and other Muslim governments, but the violence is not imported. Pakistan tried for decades to encourage local support for an armed campaign, but failed. It is only in recent years, as local frustrations have climbed, that the Kashmiri people have turned against the government in New Delhi.

The autonomy proposal was an attempt to respond to those mounting frustrations. The National Conference, which has no great reputation for efficiency or good government, had ulterior motives. It wanted to cut off growing support for the Hurriyat Conference, a group of Kashmiri separatist parties that has condemned the autonomy proposal. The New Delhi government has recently released several dozen Kashmiri separatist leaders, prompting speculation that negotiations were possible. That would have undercut the National Conference’s credibility and standing. But the national government’s interests lie with the National Conference and working with it to squelch the enthusiasm for separation.

Of course, granting greater local autonomy to Kashmir is risky, but the government could make compromise more palatable to the nationalists. The Kashmir assembly’s proposal would only restore powers that the local government had enjoyed from the time Kashmir joined India at independence until 1953. That defense could also be used to stave off similar demands by other states.

Among the many uncertainties, one thing is clear: Closing the door on Kashmir’s political demands will only increase the violence. The iron fist has not worked. The insurgency has only intensified since India began its crackdown. Real political input for the Kashmiri people could blunt the separatists’ appeal. That will also mean that the New Delhi government must ensure that the National Conference puts the state’s interests above its own.

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