Elections to the Kashmir Assembly will be held from Sept. 16 to Oct. 8. The million-dollar question is, will they be meaningful and bring about peace in a state that has been a bone of contention since 1947, when the British colonial masters divided the subcontinent into India and Pakistan before leaving?

The two Asian countries, now armed with nuclear weapons, have fought four wars over Kashmir. Worse, Islamabad has been waging a proxy battle in Kashmir for 13 years, and thousands of civilians have died. Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, promised U.S. President George W. Bush to end this form of conflict by stopping cross-border infiltration. The continuing extremist violence in Kashmir indicates he has not.

The elections and the installation of a people’s assembly in the state will legitimize New Delhi’s oft-repeated argument that Kashmir is an integral part of India and that its accession from Maharaja Hari Singh’s rule in 1947 was legal.

For Musharraf and Pakistan, such legitimacy will mean a loss: Islamabad’s foreign policy has for decades been centric; the country’s army has survived on war euphoria; and the Islamic clergy has abhorred the thought of a Muslim-majority Kashmir being part of a Hindu, though secular, India.

Yet, the post-Sept. 11 phase has seen Musharraf under international pressure to give up terror tactics. If Washington did not impose harsher measures on him, it was because of his help in driving away the notorious Taliban from Afghanistan, an administration that gave refuge to Osama bin Laden.

The Kashmiri polls will be difficult for New Delhi, as parties fighting for a separate Kashmir have entered the fray. A panel set up by New Delhi to try to rope in the separatists — who are united under the umbrella organization All-Party Hurriyat — has failed. Although the panel had the “blessings” of conference chairman Abdul Gani Khan Bhat and the Shah, the most prominent voice outside the Hurriyat, it could not convince them of the importance of joining mainstream politics. Both men are very important figures, whose stamp of approval on the election process could have turned the tide in New Delhi’s favor.

India has much to gain if it can prove to the world that the elections have been free, fair and broad-based. Participation by separatists would have been a great leap in that direction.

If New Delhi allows international observers to supervise the polls, it could attract greater world sympathy and understanding. The chief election commissioner’s rather imprudent statement about foreign observers appears to have been a tactical blunder. He said, “in this day and age, it is out of the question for the white man to come to observe what the native is doing.” New Delhi is now trying to undo the damage.

Despite all these obstacles, one cannot ignore the fact that the Kashmir question now looks closer to being sorted out largely because of international pressure. Kashmir came into the view of the global community after the Sept. 11 tragedy. Until then, Islamabad had the international community believing that the violence there was a manifestation of the anger and sorrow that the state felt toward New Delhi. Western powers, with their lingering Cold War perceptions of the conflicts, failed to distinguish terrorism instigated by Pakistan from the historical complexity of the situation since 1947.

New Delhi must, therefore, bring the big powers along if it hopes to solve, once and for all, the vexing problem. The U.S. and other countries have sought to ensure that the Kashmiri elections are “free from border terrorism and externally instigated sabotage.”

India thus has a good head start. But it can ill afford to remain casual about its huge responsibility. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has promised to ensure free and fair polls. They must be seen as free and fair not only by the people of the state but also by the leading nations. Foreign observers will help the world accept the election verdict without reservations. Allowing international supervision would reiterate India’s commitment to a transparent electoral process.

This can be the first step in New Delhi’s resolve to tell the Western powers that it is serious about a solution to the Kashmir imbroglio. The polls can serve as a prelude to a bilateral dialogue between Pakistan and India.

New Delhi should not wait a day longer than necessary to start talking with Islamabad about the irritants that have plagued their relationship for an uncomfortably long time. As an increasingly powerful neighbor, India cannot ignore its responsibility in maintaining peace in South Asia.

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