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ISLAMABAD — When Pakistani military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee spoke on the phone for a few minutes after the devastating earthquake that hit parts of India recently, many observers were relieved.

The two men who control the world’s two newest nuclear powers had finally spoken after pointing fingers at each other for over a year.

For many South Asia watchers, the ultimate question was whether a new peace process might be beginning in the tense region where India and Pakistan have been bitter enemies for most of their 53-year history.

The earthquake in Western India that claimed more than 30,000 lives was preceded by weeks of speculation over a new, indirect round of Indian-Pakistani peace talks over the future of the Himalayan state of Kashmir.

The South Asian neighbors have fought two wars over the division of predominantly Muslim Kashmir. Almost two-thirds of that state is controlled by India, while the rest is under Pakistani control.

Many analysts warn that the next conflict between the two countries could be far more devastating than previous ones, since for the first time both countries would have the option of using nuclear weapons.

Although there are compelling reasons to think India and Pakistan may be settling their differences, there are just as many reasons to be cynical about the prospects for future peace. Many peace initiatives between the two countries have died early, mainly because of three factors.

First, in the South Asian context it is essential to differentiate between a peace initiative and a peace process. In 1999, Vajpayee stunned the world when he traveled to Pakistan using a new bus service that had been launched between the two countries. But months later, Indian troops and Pakistani-backed fighters were locked in an intense battle along the temporary border in Kashmir known as the Line of Control.

This example showed that while the famous “bus diplomacy” of early 1999 made it seem as though a peace process was under way, the underlying reasons for conflict still existed. With large numbers of troops deployed by both sides along the LOC, there is little to suggest that the two militaries will not start firing upon each other at the slightest hint of aggression. To aid peace talks, the two countries should discuss troop reductions to lower tensions.

Second, both India and Pakistan remain locked in their historical positions, leaving little leeway for flexibility and new ideas for a peace settlement. For India, there can never be a settlement without recognition of the fact that Kashmir is a part of its sovereign territory, and the issue of the region’s status is not open to international discussion. In contrast, Pakistan continues to demand the right of self-determination for the Kashmiris, as enshrined in the United Nations’ resolutions on the territory. Its policy remains driven by the concept of “internationalizing” the issue to bring in outside players to negotiate an end to the conflict.

Both positions have outlived their usefulness. India continues to reject the U.N. resolutions and is unlikely to give way to any diplomatic pressure orchestrated by Pakistan, no matter how broad or sustained. On the other hand, Pakistan will continue to agitate for a settlement that brings some freedom to Kashmiris, defying India’s position that the future of the territory is an internal matter. Unless India and Pakistan can break away from these mutually opposed positions and find a solution that reconciles the plight of the Kashmiris with the interests of both countries, there will be little hope for progress.

Finally, the South Asian region must still deal with some serious problems relating to humanitarian issues. In the latest instance, the Indian earthquake has demonstrated the unreliability of regional disaster-relief services. India, a country of about 1 billion people, and Pakistan with a population of 140 million, have far more compelling issues to tackle than an arms race.

Unfortunately, it is much easier to speak in favor of development on arms issues than to enact such a policy. Hardline nationalists in both countries have long made it difficult for peace processes to be promoted. There are no easy answers to the question of how to press India and Pakistan to change their traditional approaches. Nonetheless, this issue must be tackled if the two countries are to embark on a sustainable peace process.

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