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MADRAS, India — At a time when the world needs it the least, India and Pakistan appear to be inching toward armed conflict.

On March 23, Islamic fundamentalists massacred 24 Hindu men, women and children in Kashmir’s Nadimarg village. A sleepy little place, Nadimarg had a Hindu population of 52. Twenty-four were wiped out in a bloody slaughter that has rocked Kashmir, a region claimed by both India and Pakistan.

Despite a new government in Kashmir that appeared to have gotten violence somewhat under control, the latest killings indicate that Muslim militancy, backed by Pakistan with or without the connivance of the country’s military dictator, President Pervez Musharraf, is set to follow a predictable pattern. As the snow melts in Kashmir in spring, insurgency and infiltration across the border between the two hostile and nuclear armed neighbors will increase.

The gravity of the situation is not lost on world leaders, despite their preoccupation with the war in Iraq. Both U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Musharraf to demonstrate patience and restraint, and to stop firing across the Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir.

While the shameless double standards adopted by Washington — which has refused to accept a ceasefire in Iraq despite a feeble call by the United Nations for an end to hostilities — seemed like mockery of sorts, there is cause for concern. Britain and the United States made it clear in their statements that the international community understands this. But the fact remains that these two powers have done very little in the past to ease tensions in South Asia.

Given U.S. actions in the war on terror, New Delhi was understandably livid when Washington suggested that India resume dialogue with Pakistan. “The combat against international terrorism is ill served if threats in some cases are met with military means and in others with calls for sobriety and discussions,” said a spokesman of the External Affairs Ministry in New Delhi. He went on to call Pakistan “the epicenter of international terrorism.”

The mood seemed ominous. Last week, both countries tested nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and exchanged artillery fire across the LOC. And neither side has forgotten last year’s standoff when the two countries came close to war.

Adding to what could turn into absolute mess is an observation made by Western diplomats in Islamabad, who say that Musharraf has eased off the clampdown on Kashmir terrorist groups applied soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Most of the 2,000 radicals Islamabad rounded up were freed at the end of last year, and some of the banned groups have emerged under new names.

“Even in jails, notorious anti-Indian and sectarian terrorists enjoyed lenient conditions, with some being paid a stipend of 10,000 rupees ($300) a month,” the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan noted in its annual report released recently.

It is not lost on anyone fighting terrorism that Musharraf’s intelligence agencies display full cooperation when it comes to hunting down al-Qaeda criminals, and yet they also support Kashmir fundamentalists. Can a distinction be made between good terrorists and bad terrorists?

New Delhi’s anger is justified, although it must come around to accepting what seems to be the most practical solution to the Kashmir imbroglio. Convert the LOC into an international border, and be done with it.

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