Three of the world’s most protracted conflicts are in Asia: the Palestinian-Israeli crisis in West Asia, Kashmir in South Asia and Korea in East Asia. The world’s interest is engaged in South Asia because of the fate of over 1 billion people, the importance of India as the world’s most populous democracy and the nuclearization of the subcontinent. Although not the most dangerous place on Earth, Kashmir is the most likely nuclear flash point.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee announced a unilateral ceasefire in November for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The Indian Army was instructed not to initiate any combat operations, although they would still respond to attacks on security forces. Within Kashmir, the broadest grouping of militants, the All Party Hurriyat Conference, welcomed the ceasefire and responded positively. Some militant groups, including the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, scoffed at the ceasefire. Still, a few days later Pakistan reciprocated with a policy of “maximum restraint.”

On Dec. 20, Vajpayee announced in both Houses of India’s Parliament that the ceasefire was being extended by a month until Jan. 26, India’s Republic Day. Pakistan responded the same day with the announcement of a partial pullback of troops from the 700-km Line of Control, though the exact numbers and location were kept secret.

There were four reasons behind India’s decision. First, the government concluded that the ceasefire had been welcomed by the Kashmiri people worn down by 11 years of war, the political parties in Kashmir and some of the most important militant groups.

Second, Pakistan’s policy of maximum restraint had observable effects on the ground. For the first time since the 1999 Kargil war, there was no cross-border shelling across the LOC by Indian and Pakistani troops. Because the Kargil operation was planned even while Vajpayee had been talking peace in Lahore, trust in good faith negotiations was destroyed. It must be restored.

Third, India’s unilateral peace initiative had been praised by an international community also tired of the intractable conflict, and was generally well received within India. There were no critical comments in Parliament when the ceasefire was extended.

Fourth, as a consequence of all this, there was a palpably different, more optimistic mood in Kashmir. As in Northern Ireland, the experience of partial peace after a long descent into relentless violence proved satisfying enough to widen the constituency of peace significantly.

The immediate roots of the ceasefire are buttressed by a longer-term sense of exhaustion and blind runs. India and Pakistan have already gone to war three times, and the 10-year Kashmir insurgency has reportedly claimed over 30,000 lives. The subcontinent has been witness also to ongoing terrorist outrages in both countries, with each insisting that the needle of suspicion points to the other’s complicity.

The economic, military and political costs of intransigence and policy paralysis may be higher for Pakistan. Islamabad’s prospects of wresting Kashmir by force from India are slim. Obsession with Kashmir exists on both sides but it would likely destroy Pakistan before it destroys India.

As I have argued in the past, there are not many viable options for India either. Its democratic culture has been corrupted by electoral malpractices and heavy-handed security operations. To be sustainable, peace must incorporate the wishes of the people. Reconquest of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir would not be practical either in the short or the long term.

There is little support from inside or outside India for undertaking a massive program of resettling Hindus in overwhelmingly Muslim Kashmir. There would be fierce opposition within India to submitting the Kashmir dispute to international adjudication or arbitration, honorable though such a course might seem. Similarly, a resolution based on self-determination would reinforce India’s democratic credentials, strengthen its federalism and close a financial drain — but this is also ruled out from the realm of practical politics.

There is thus no alternative to talks with Pakistan and the militants. Instead of holding their national security hostage for the sake of Kashmir, India and Pakistan must find a solution to Kashmir followed by greater attention to economic and social development.

The world into which the subcontinental twins were born has changed. Many Indians and Pakistanis realize that their history for the last 53 years need not be their destiny for the next half century. Because they cannot change their geography, they must take control of their destiny.

Vajpayee affirmed the commitment to a resumption of a “composite dialogue process,” which is code for a formula that can include Kashmir, but should not focus on it exclusively. The status of the province can be discussed within a wider framework. Pakistan in turn has said that its pullback is a manifestation of good will and a commitment to peace through dialogue.

The present flurry of activity may prove yet another false dawn. The fact remains that India is integral to the fate of all South Asian countries. In turn, however, India can never fulfill its global destiny until it first gets its relations right within its own region. South Asian relations rotate around the India-Pakistan axis. For peace to be grasped and held, both sides must make concessions and accept compromises. Maybe, like U.S. President Richard Nixon’s opening to China, it will take a “Hindu-first” party to cut a deal with a military-ruled Pakistan. The starting point must be the sanctity of the LOC, mutual troop pullbacks and a de facto demilitarization along the LOC.

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