It is difficult to get excited about talk of peace in Kashmir. India and Pakistan, the two main parties to the conflict in that troubled region, have tried and abandoned a series of initiatives in recent years. Indeed, India refuses to involve Islamabad in any discussions, and this is despite the fact, however unpleasant to the government in Delhi, that Pakistan has a role to play in any settlement. Thus, there is resignation more than relief at reports that the two countries are once again trying to push a peace process forward.

An opening has been created by India’s declaration on Nov. 28 of a unilateral ceasefire during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan along the Line of Control that separates Jammu Kashmir, India’s only predominantly Muslim state, and Pakistan’s Kashmir. In response, Pakistan promised to practice maximum military restraint along the border. That alone is welcome: There are frequent exchanges of fire in the region. The Kashmir dispute has triggered two of the three wars that the two countries have fought in the last half century.

Earlier this week, India upped the ante by extending the ceasefire until Jan. 26. Pakistan responded by ordering the pullback of some of its military forces. Pakistan urged India to reciprocate and withdraw its forces from the LOC. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said his government would take “exploratory steps” to relaunch the dialogue with Pakistan that has been stalled since 1998. Then, hopes for peace were dashed when rebels, supported by Pakistan, seized Indian territory in the region; it transpired that the raids were planned while the two governments were talking peace. Trust, essential to any serious dialogue, evaporated.

The Indian government is adamant that Pakistan have no role in the Kashmir talks. Delhi insists that it is a domestic issue; it will negotiate with Kashmiri groups, the main one of which is the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, an umbrella organization representing 22 groups. India’s ceasefire is designed to exploit cracks in the Conference and put them on the defensive. That does not mean that the offer is not genuine, but it is designed to maximize India’s leverage. If the rebels dismiss the offer, as some groups have done, then India wins the battle for international opinion. (Despite Delhi’s insistence that this is a purely internal matter, world opinion does matter.)

Cognizant of their position, members of the Conference have agreed to talks. They are sending a delegation to Pakistan to confer with Hurriyat members there. That is encouraging. It demonstrates their seriousness, and India’s, too: It indirectly acknowledges Pakistan’s role in the dispute.

India’s goal is to slow the violence and persuade the Conference to stand in state elections scheduled for 2002. Participation by the rebels would strengthen the legitimacy of the elections, the state government and the national government. That is anathema to some rebels, but it is not unrealistic.

The Kashmir dispute is indisputably violent. At least 30,000 people have died in the last decade. But the violence is a relatively new phenomenon. Even though Pakistan and India have been willing to go to war over the region, the radicalization of the Kashmiri people is of recent vintage. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, locals did not support the guerrillas. Their attitude changed as a result of corruption and inefficiency in the state government, and the national government’s willingness to tolerate such to keep an ally in power.

A legitimate government in Kashmir, one that works for local interests, would diminish the separatist threat. The problem is that some measure of autonomy for Kashmir is required and that poses problems for India’s government. Nationalism is ascendant in Delhi and there is little inclination to grant the Kashmir government the powers it wants — and was given in the original Indian Constitution. Hindu groups are reluctant to make any concessions to Muslims in the region, and even pragmatists fear setting a precedent for other groups and states.

This powerful array of forces is ample reason to be pessimistic about the prospects of the latest peace initiative. Extremists of every stripe — Hindu, Muslim, nationalists in both India and Pakistan — will be opposed to any compromise. Still, efforts have to be made. The withdrawal of military forces will diminish the intensity of the violence, as well as cut the chances of a direct confrontation between the two militaries, which could lead to war.

But it is critical to remember that the violence is not the cause of Kashmir’s woes; it is a symptom of deeper problems. Curing those ills requires considerable political will. Having the courage to follow through on this latest peace initiative is only a warmup for the challenges ahead.

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