HONG KONG — One of the most important, painful, politically controversial but essential tasks for the new Indian government of Manmohan Singh is to get relations with its neighbor and rival Pakistan onto a smoother footing for the sake of both countries, as well as for the peace and stability of the region and the world.

Now is an excellent time for more realistic relations between India and Pakistan, given that Singh’s government in New Delhi has just won a fresh and clear mandate, and the government in Islamabad has belatedly realized that Pakistan has no future — quite literally — in pandering to extremists masquerading as the true believers of Islam.

But Kashmir stands in the way. The landlocked mountainous region has already been the bloody battlefield three times as the two countries staked their bitter claims to the region. Even today, Kashmir is the main excuse for India and Pakistan to waste billions of dollars on arms and to play dangerous nuclear games. It has seen both countries sucked into great power conflicts and is a source of tension with 50,000 people killed over the past few decades.

It would be a brave leader who would dare extend a hand of peace in Kashmir, and an even braver one who would shake it. Even today there are too many vested interests in both countries whose existence is justified by continuing tension, military spending and disruption in Kashmir.

Events in early June have underlined the continuing tension, with daily riots in Indian Kashmir over claims that Indian soldiers had abducted, raped and killed two women; the Indian Army said the women drowned in a stream. Meanwhile, Indian suspicions of Pakistan grew when a court released Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, who had been under house arrest after the November bombing in Mumbai.

Both countries are also weighed down by the historical baggage going back to their independence from Britain. On the eve of the creation of India and Pakistan from the British Indian empire, Pakistan was confident that Kashmir, with its majority Muslim population would become part of Pakistan. After all, the “K” in “Pakistan” was supposed to stand for Kashmir. But Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, had deep family roots in Kashmir and the state had a Hindu ruler who was prevailed upon to opt for India as the best option. Neither country would allow the territory what a majority would probably have opted for — independence.

The first war was triggered by guerrilla activity encouraged by Pakistan almost as soon as the two countries were created. Kashmir was split across the icy wastes, with India taking the valley and Pakistan enough territory to threaten India from its Azad (Free) Kashmir. Indians believe that their best chance of solving the question came in 1972 when leaders of the two countries met in Simla to make peace after the brief war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Kashmir was a sideshow in that war, though some fierce battles were fought there.

India had 93,000 Pakistani soldiers as prisoners of war and bargaining chips when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi met to negotiate with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the new civilian leader of Pakistan riding the crest of a popular wave over the defeated and disgraced military.

P.N. Haksar, Gandhi’s principal private secretary and the person closest to the talks, told me some years afterward that the two leaders had agreed on a secret clause that effectively accepted the Line of Control dividing Kashmir as the international boundary between India and Pakistan.

The Simla deal pledged that the two countries would settle their disagreements peacefully, to respect the LOC and to refrain from the threat of force. But Bhutto turned the agreement on its head and declared subsequently — before being hanged by the vengeful military — that at Simla, “Happily for Pakistan and the people of Kashmir, India accepted, once again, the existence of the Kashmir dispute.”

To an outsider, it might seem that the sensible thing would be to accept the facts of life and agree to a split in Kashmir based on the LOC. An independent Kashmir is a nonstarter, not least because neither India nor Pakistan will accept it. Even if a flag of independence were put up, it would be a bone that the aggrieved forces of Pakistan and India would try to chew over.

Is there a leader brave enough to realize that Kashmir is dragging both countries down? Prime Minister Singh may be the one. He recently said: “India cannot realize its ambitions (if there is not) peace and prosperity in South Asia as a whole and if our neighborhood is suffering from instability and turbulence that has a bearing on our own evolution as a democratic polity committed to sustained growth and development.”

Kashmir epitomizes the old saying that terrorists in one country are freedom fighters to another. Although President Asif Ali Zardari has renewed calls for peace, Prime Minister Jusuf Raza Gilani promised that political and other support for Kashmir, code words for backing freedom fighters, would resume.

Pakistan’s “freedom fighters” for Kashmir are from the same fundamentalist branch of Islam that has been causing mayhem and bloodshed in Pakistan’s major cities. They betray the varied history of Islam on the Indian subcontinent for their own narrow, murderous vision, as well as the promises of Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah for a tolerant Muslim state.

Unfortunately, too, Kashmir offers the rationale for Pakistan to maintain huge armed forces — 700,000 on active duty plus 300,000 paramilitary and 600,000 reservists — and for other countries, notably China and the United States, to make big arms sales. India’s army is equally huge but has been maintained under strict civilian control. Pakistan’s president even today does not know what tricks and double-dealing his senior military officers are doing.

Thus it is probably fruitless to try to take the Kashmir issue head on. Singh, if he is as good as his promise, has to offer better economic and trade ties as a way of persuading Pakistan of the virtue of good and peaceful relations and the futility of fighting and war between two nuclear armed states who could easily blow themselves and much of the neighborhood to pieces with a few missteps.

Does he have the generosity of mind and imagination to persuade his own colleagues and the hard-pressed Pakistani politicians to accept the challenge of peace and economic rivalry.

Kevin Rafferty was executive editor of the Indian Express newspaper group.

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