The recently concluded conference on South Asia, held at the United Nations University during an especially tense week in that region, confirmed three things.

First, peace and security are symbiotic. Neither will be possible in South Asia without the other. Foreign investment will not flow into the region in large volumes unless there is a more secure investment climate, as well as other improvements (such as infrastructure) to maximize profits. Domestic political volatility and regional enmities vitiate efforts to attract large-scale foreign investment. At the same time, economic growth, whose benefits are felt by the masses through active programs of poverty reduction and redistribution of wealth and assets, will help to stabilize internal and interstate conflicts by providing much needed ballast.

Second, the pivot point for South Asian regional relations is India-Pakistan rivalry, whose intensity waxes and wanes but whose basic parameters have remained as frozen as the snow on the Himalayan heights.

Third, the same facts, when viewed through the distorting lens of that bitter rivalry, produce dramatically different conclusions. Is Kashmir the cause or consequence of India-Pakistan enmity? Is a Kalashnikov-toting man in Kashmir a freedom fighter lawfully resisting brutal occupation by Indian security forces, or a foreign jihadi trained by Pakistani intelligence services to launch terrorist attacks on Indian targets?

And what of the Tamil Tiger in Sri Lanka? Where is the borderline between moral and political support for legitimate causes and actions that aid and abet cross-border terrorism; or between defending one’s territorial integrity against foreign terrorists and engaging in state terrorism?

A poet famously described Kashmir as our one claim to paradise on Earth. Today it is the world’s most likely nuclear flash point. Casualty estimates for even a “limited nuclear war” range from 3 million to 12 million dead. India cannot convert military superiority into legitimate rule, Pakistan cannot wrest Kashmir by force of arms. The resulting stalemate has checked the progress and prosperity of both sides; their perennial squabbling has alienated them from the world.

If outsiders refuse to get intimately involved in the dispute, they risk being criticized by Pakistan for rewarding Indian intransigence. If outsiders do get seriously involved, they risk being criticized by India for rewarding Pakistani provocation and nuclear brinkmanship.

The heightened tension following terrorist attacks on Indian targets in October (a state capitol), December (the national Parliament) and this month (an army bus transporting families of soldiers) is the consequence of continuing infiltration of armed militants across the Line of Control, or LOC; calculated Indian brinkmanship in January; and sheer exasperation.

Delhi’s military mobilization at the start of the year was designed to appease an inflamed domestic opinion; convince Pakistan that its patience with cross-border terrorism had been exhausted and that it was willing to go to war, even nuclear war; and signal to Washington that exasperation with Pakistan was matched with a determination to emulate the United States in equating terrorists with those who harbor them and wage war on both. What may have begun as a calculated gamble has locked the government into a stance from which it will be impossible to retreat without a crippling dent in the ruling party’s political credibility, unless there is tangible demonstration of some key goals having been achieved.

The unrelenting cycle of violence and nuclear brinkmanship has widened the constituency of peace in all relevant constituencies: Kashmiris, the people of India and Pakistan, and the international community. India and Pakistan cannot change geography; they can and must take charge of their destiny.

In Kashmir, India has violated its admirable commitment to democracy, pluralism and tolerance in the rest of the country. The alienation and disaffection of Kashmiris is rooted more in the repeated negation of their political choices by an intrusive and interfering central government in New Delhi, and in the brutal practices of Indian security forces, than in India’s being a Hindu-majority country.

The costs of intransigence and policy paralysis are higher for Pakistan and will destroy it before they destroy India. Pakistan, well down the road to Talibanization, was given one last-gasp opportunity to steady the ship of state as a result of the reconfiguration of the international landscape following the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11.

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, under intense U.S. diplomatic and Indian military pressure, reversed two decades of strategic investment in Afghanistan and appeasement of Islamic hardliners.

There is not only growing sympathy for India’s skepticism of the gap between Pakistan’s public proclamations and its concrete actions regarding jihadi outfits operating in Kashmir but also understanding of Musharraf’s predicament in trying to transform Pakistan from a jihadi culture into a modern and progressive country by engaging in the struggle for the “soul of Islam.”

If Musharraf rescues Pakistan from the failed state syndrome, eradicates the Koran-Kalashnikov culture of the Islamic schools and makes Islamic militants subservient to the writ of the state, he will also undercut Hindu fundamentalism in India and diminish the electoral prospects of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Pakistan’s military would have a lesser role in politics without the rallying power of Kashmir as the emotional touchstone of raw nationalism. Thus peace in Kashmir would help to consolidate and entrench secular, progressive democracy in both countries.

India’s Kashmir options are limited. Conquest of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir — unsupported by Indians outside the tiny core of hardline Hindu fundamentalists — would not be militarily feasible, morally justifiable or politically defensible. There is no domestic or international support for a program of massive resettlement of Hindus in Muslim Kashmir — “demographic colonialism.”

There would be fierce opposition in India to international adjudication or arbitration. A U.N.-supervised referendum is outside the realm of practical politics. Most Indian Muslims — there are as many in India as in Pakistan, and only a tiny fraction live in Kashmir (which has a population of 10 million) — oppose the severance of Kashmir from India for fear of large-scale massacres in the resulting backlash.

Why not move forward on the basis of legalizing the territorial status quo where neither side gains or loses? The de facto border has barely moved in 55 years of enmity, and both countries have paid an enormous price for this stagnant situation. India, integral to the fate of South Asia, cannot fulfill its global destiny until it gets relations right in its own region.

For peace to be grasped and hold, both sides must cut a deal. The starting point could be mutual troop pullbacks and a de facto demilitarization along the LOC. Its sanctity was underscored in the 1999 Kargil war by India’s reaction to infiltration across the LOC, its scrupulous respect for the LOC in recapturing Kargil, and the international community’s responses to one side’s infiltration and the other’s restraint. The endpoint should be converting the LOC into the international border.

The confined space of domestic politics leaves little room for initiatives coming from India or Pakistan to be warmly received by the other. Outsiders recommending the conversion of the LOC into the international border might meet with more success. The world is neither convinced of the moral rectitude nor impressed by the self-righteous posturing of either country. Their symmetrical domestic consensus on confrontation and resolve is matched by the international consensus on the need for restraint, compromise and resolution.

The conversion of the LOC into an international border offers the most reasonable, common-sensical, realistic and feasible option. Absent a resolution, we will keep returning to these manufactured and genuine crises every few months or years. It also offers the international community the opportunity to get involved and exert pressure without favoring one side or the other. Indeed, it penalizes both sides for their mutually reinforcing irresponsible behavior, by requiring both to give up claims on the other side of the LOC.

There would be two further downstream consequences in the long term. On the one hand, if stabilization is followed by peace, and that in turn facilitates long-term growth in the whole region, then the consolidation of economic success and liberal democracy would seriously undercut one of the structural bases for terrorism. On the other hand, the rise of a prosperous middle-class society would weaken the desire to impose rule on any community that wished to chart its own independent course.

In today’s world, when peace and friendship exist between prosperous neighbors, borders are irrelevant. At present Kashmir is hazardous to the health of Kashmiris, Indians, Pakistanis and foreigners. With tranquillity restored, it would revert to “paradise on Earth” for all residents and visitors regardless of nationality and religion.

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