ISLAMABAD — A recent two-week lull in the fighting in Kashmir has momentarily aroused hope that South Asia’s two bitter, nuclear-armed neighbors, India and Pakistan, might be facing a window of opportunity in the struggle to overcome 53 years of animosity. For much of the outside world, concerned over the danger of a possible Indo-Pakistani nuclear exchange, any signs of a rapprochement between the two countries must be good news.

Three wars have been fought between India and Pakistan in the past half-century, two of them over the division of the Himalayan state of Kashmir.

The announcement of a unilateral ceasefire by Hezb-ul Mujahadeen, the largest group of Kashmiri Muslim separatists, caught many South Asian analysts by surprise. After months of claiming responsibility for attacks on Indian military and civilian targets in the portion of Kashmir controlled by New Delhi, the Hezb-ul Mujahadeen was hardly expected to put down its guns so suddenly.

Exactly what prompted the ceasefire is still a matter of speculation. Some point to a combination of pressure from Pakistan, the Kashmiri separatists’ principal backer, and the United States, where the Clinton administration would not mind getting some credit for a foreign-policy victory just months before the end of its term.

For now, nobody can be certain of the future, especially as the Hezb-ul Mujahadeen has returned to fighting, breaking its proposed three-month ceasefire after just two weeks with the excuse that the Indian government was unwilling to consider accepting some key ground rules.

For the Hezb-ul Mujahadeen, New Delhi’s belief that peace negotiations fall within the bounds of the Indian Constitution is unacceptable, as the mujahadeen, or freedom fighters, contest India’s claim over the predominantly Muslim state. The breakdown, say leaders of the Hezb-ul Mujahadeen, was also prompted by India’s refusal to invite Pakistan to the peace discussions in recognition of the country’s importance in an eventual settlement.

The brief prospect of peace and the sudden reversal, however, provided yet another powerful reminder of how delicately these windows of opportunity must be managed in South Asia. This is the second time since last year when prospective peace has suddenly collapsed in bloodshed. In 1999, the so-called historic bus journey to Pakistan by Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee prompted many to speculate that the ice had been conclusively broken between the two countries.

But before then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had an opportunity to reciprocate Vajpayee’s gesture, India and Pakistan found themselves engaged in a regional battle near Kargil in Indian-administered Kashmir, where fighters backed by Pakistan crossed the temporary border known as the Line of Control and occupied strategically important heights.

While these two events were sobering only to those who had been too quick to proclaim the imminence of peace, they contain at least two pointers for the future.

First, given their long track record of animosity, India and Pakistan are unlikely to shelve their differences quickly or easily and start trading peace rather than bullets in an otherwise tense environment. The lesson from recent experiences, therefore, must be that it is futile, if not outright naive, to expect a quick fix to a long-drawn-out conflict. While there are no easy solutions, it is likely that incremental moves toward peace may be more beneficial. Instead of large gestures that aim to overcome chronic problems, gradual change — for instance, increasing reciprocal trade and exchanges between the two countries’ literary elite, journalists and professionals — may well inaugurate a relationship that stabilizes in time.

Pakistan, however, will certainly refuse to open up to India unless there is some prospect of fresh engagement on Kashmir, where Islamabad has consistently called for ending what it describes as grave human-rights violations. It may, in fact, be in India’s interest to consider scaling down its troop presence in Kashmir. Not only would it be a conciliatory gesture that would lay the groundwork for fresh dialogues with other Kashmiri groups, but it would also put Pakistan on the defensive by conceding ground to Islamabad and seeking its support in return for a new peace process.

Second, and perhaps more pertinently in global terms, India and Pakistan will remain on international radar screens until they either accept international nuclear safeguards or at least show that they are making some progress toward a bilateral rapprochement just to demonstrate that they are eager to make South Asia a safer region. While many outside the region will remain apprehensive over South Asian security, some comfort might be drawn from the emergence of a peace process that is likely to be sustainable, unlike the rapidly reversed ones of last year and this summer.

Even as chaos returns to Kashmir, these recent failures leave the leaders of India and Pakistan with plenty of food for thought.

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