After 11 years of escalating violence, there is reason for hope in Kashmir. The largest Muslim separatist group declared a unilateral ceasefire late last month. The move was promptly reciprocated by the Indian Army, which announced the suspension of operations against that group. But prospects for talks are clouded by renewed violence on the part of guerrillas who oppose negotiations. They must not be allowed to block the first tentative steps toward peace in this troubled part of the world.

The breakthrough occurred July 24 when Hezb-ul Mujahedeen declared a three-month unilateral ceasefire. The announcement stunned the group’s allies in the United Jihad Council, an umbrella organization of 14 militant groups fighting for Kashmir’s independence from India. They promptly expelled the Hezb-ul Mujahedeen from the council and vowed to fight on.

That Hezb-ul Mujahedeen among all the guerrillas declared the ceasefire is important. It is the largest of the militant groups and, according to its leader, supplies 90 percent of the separatist forces. Unlike the other organizations, its fighters are indigenous Kashmiris, not imported mercenaries. That means the group is more sensitive to local sentiment and should be able to deliver a real peace agreement.

Finally, there is the fact that Hezb-ul Mujahadeen’s headquarters are in Pakistan, which makes it reasonable to conclude that the group is acting with the approval of the government in Islamabad. That meets one of the conditions that Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had put on a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Gen. Pervez Musharraf: the end of Pakistan’s support for terrorism within India.

These developments did not materialize out of thin air. The process began earlier this spring, after U.S. President Bill Clinton’s trip to South Asia. Reportedly, the president has since been engaged in behind-the-scenes arm-twisting to push the two sides toward a dialogue. After his visit, India released several separatist leaders from jail, a critical preliminary move to any serious negotiations.

Mr. Musharraf hinted at a possible turn in the conflict a few weeks ago. Speaking to a group of Indian journalists, he repeatedly stated that any solution that was acceptable to the people of Kashmir would be acceptable to Pakistan. The ceasefire and the Pakistani government’s seeming readiness to talk peace could set the stage for a meeting between the two men at the annual United Nations General Assembly meetings to be held next month.

There is a lot of time for things to go wrong between now and then, however. The immediate concern is the reaction of the other separatist groups who do not believe in dialogue. This week alone, a series of attacks by suspected Islamic guerrillas opposed to the ceasefire have claimed nearly 100 lives. Although Muslim militants have denied Indian accusations that they are behind the attacks, one such group has taken credit for an assault on an Indian military base.

A commitment to negotiations on both sides can defeat the militants. India is to be commended for not letting the violence deter it from pursuit of a dialogue. But getting to the bargaining table is only the beginning of the process. The militants demand talks without “preconditions.” That would imply, at least, that all outcomes are possible, including independence. Indian officials have maintained, however, that that option is not possible. They need not say that outright: The Indian constitution precludes secession, so merely asserting that talks take place within “a constitutional framework” is enough to scuttle discussions.

Creative diplomacy and courage are needed. There are many people in India and Pakistan for whom any compromise is anathema. There are some of them in both governments. But they are a small minority. The history of the Kashmir struggle testifies to the fact that the overwhelming majority of indigenous Kashmiris do not favor independence. They want a political system that responds to their needs. It was only when local frustrations overflowed that the insurgency gained a popular base.

If India wants to solve the Kashmir problem, it must address that need. Some form of greater autonomy is needed for Kashmir. At the same time, however, there must be assurances that the new local government will be capable as well. The state administration has a history of corruption and inefficiency. Neither demand is too much to ask. There is no reason for this violence to continue.

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