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India-Pakistan Kashmir Dispute Now in High Stakes Phase - 2002-05-16

India's lower house of Parliament has accused Pakistan of being behind a series of terrorist attacks. However, the government stopped short of threatening to attack Pakistan despite loud and angry calls from lawmakers during a marathon debate. The action by Parliament came amid renewed fears the tensions could lead to a new war between the nuclear armed rivals

Two analysts, a Pakistani and an Indian, have much the same view on the issue.

Since the 1947 partition, India and Pakistan have been in conflict and occasionally at war. But the stakes are higher now because both have nuclear weapons and, in the opinion of some analysts, would not be averse to using them under certain circumstances.

In addition, both countries have growing extremist movements, Islamist militants in Pakistan, ultra-nationalist Hindus in India.

They have little regard for their respective governments, says Sunil Khilnani, professor of politics at the University of London and now at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. In fact, they are putting intense pressure on their governments.

"While you have the two states facing each other across the border, you also have the emergence of a lot of extremist non-state actors, I mean terrorism in Pakistan, the kind of violent mob killings and carnage that we have seen in India by Hindu extremists there. These extremist elements are in a sense pushing the hands of the governments, and that does make for a much more dangerous situation," he said. That also heightens the nuclear danger, says Mumtaz Ahmad, professor of political science at Hampton University. On a rational basis, the two governments know the consequences of nuclear war, but accidents are possible when passions are so aroused:

"Once there are two nuclear states face-to-face against each other, then there is always a possibility of someone miscalculating the intentions of the other and taking the first strike. So I think the worry is very, very genuine," he said.

Kashmir remains the prime source of conflict between the two countries. India controls two-thirds of the state which is predominantly Muslim. So it rejects the popular vote that Pakistan seeks.

Professor Ahmad says the United States must take an active role in finding a solution. "The first priority for the United States is to try to defuse the tensions on the borders, somehow to persuade both India and Pakistan to withdraw their offensive and crack formations to their peacetime locations. As long as the troops are on the border in full gear, there is always a danger of war," he said.

Professor Khilnani says both countries must back down from their maximum positions. Talks are not possible if India insists on total sovereignty over Kashmir or if Pakistan demands a plebiscite for the region.

He believes a settlement must come in stages. "The first step would be to de-escalate the crisis situation at the moment, and there I think the United States has a role. The next step would be to begin to stop cross-border terrorism and at the same time for the Indian government to begin to build institutions for the re-establishment of democracy in Kashmir. It is a long road, but there are identifiable steps that one can take toward a solution," he said.

And the international community must be engaged every step of the way, says Professor Khilnani. There is too much at stake for it not to be.