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New Ideas Surfacing on Kashmir Peace

Following nearly six decades of tension and fighting between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, some of the troubled region's leaders are looking for new ways to bring peace. While some experts see the debate as a sign of progress in a long stalemate, analysts warn there is still a long way to go before the dispute that divides Kashmir is resolved.

For years, the debate over Kashmir has been limited to a few positions: the region remains divided between India and Pakistan; it becomes independent; or Kashmir joins either Pakistan or India entirely.

But there was no way that the governments in New Delhi and Islamabad, or the people of Kashmir, were all going to agree on one of those options.

Now, a group of Kashmiri separatist leaders are seeking different ideas - hoping to generate new thinking that ends the stalemate.

Omar Abdullah is with the National Conference, a party that favors self-rule for Kashmir while stopping short of outright independence. It is an idea popular with younger Kashmiri leaders, who see it as a way of getting past old thinking.

"No Indian prime minister will ever have a mandate to redraw lines," he said. "Similarly no Pakistani president or prime minister will have a mandate to agree a solution that solidifies the Line of Control as a border. But there ways around this - if that border becomes irrelevant to the extent that nobody talks about it. And then perhaps both sides have won without either side losing."

Abdullah is not alone in searching for new solutions. During the past months, Kashmir leaders have gone to Pakistan for informal meetings where different ideas are up for discussion.

One separatist leader recently suggested there be a "United States of Kashmir." The proposal calls for self-rule, with joint supervision by both India and Pakistan.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has also discussed the idea of self-rule for Kashmir.

No concrete proposals have been presented to officials in New Delhi and Islamabad. India has not directly commented on these ideas, but a recent Home Ministry report says Indian-controlled Kashmir already has its own constitution and legislates on its internal affairs, so no further self rule is needed.

Not all want to consider new options. Syed Ali Shah Geelani is a member of the hard-line faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a group of separatist organizations in Indian-held Kashmir.

To him, there is only one way to resolve the dispute - and it dates back to 1947.

"The whole state should be given to the U.N. Security Council so that they will take control of the whole state," he said. "And then they will arrange the plebiscite for the people of Jammu and Kashmir. This is our basic demand. Other solutions and other road maps and other formulas we have all rejected because they are not according to our wishes."

Indian and Pakistan troops have waged war twice across the Line of Control - the de-facto border that divides Kashmir. Since 1989, India also has faced a violent Islamic insurgency in the two-thirds of Kashmir it controls - a conflict that has killed thousands of civilians and soldiers.

After nearly going to war again in 2002, India and Pakistan resumed their intermittent peace process. They have initiated a series of measures to gain each other's trust and pledged to work toward eventually resolving the Kashmir dispute.

Those measures include opening a bus route across the border, cricket matches, and allowing some leaders based in Indian Kashmir to visit Pakistan.

Samina Ahmed is with the International Crisis Group, a non-profit conflict resolution organization. While she praises Kashmiri leaders for sparking greater debate, she warns that so far, most of the ideas remain just talk.

"But if you actually get down to the nitty-gritty - how far has India moved from its long-standing position now that no territorial change and no real constitutional change? And how far has Pakistan moved from its position that the territorial status quo is unacceptable? If there's going to be a change in those two positions, then we're going to see a narrowing of the gap," she said.

Ahmed says it is important that India and Pakistan push ahead with peace talks and so more to build trust. Only then there will be a real shift over how the conflict in Kashmir can be resolved.