After more than half a century of conflict over the Himalayan region Kashmir, India and Pakistan may be closer to reconciliation than ever before. VOA?s Zlatica Hoke reports.

Ever since India?s former Prime Minister Vajpayee and Pakistan?s President Musharraf met last January in Islamabad, hopes have been high on both sides that 57 years of enmity may come to an end. Indeed, India and Pakistan have announced a series of meetings this summer, ending with landmark talks between their foreign ministers in late August.

George Thomas, professor of international affairs at Marquette University, Wisconsin, says some improvements in the relationship between the two countries are already on the way: ?The level of Indo-Pakistani trade and economic cooperation has increased. And also, there has been an easing of travel restrictions.?

For countries that have conducted two wars over Kashmir and until recently were engaged in a nuclear arms race, these improvements are significant.

Khalid Hasan, a Washington correspondent for Pakistani?s ?Daily Times? of Lahore, says both sides are tired of the conflict: ?There is a general feeling among the people, both in India and in Pakistan, that the world has passed them by. Our countries have tremendous potential. We have the resources. We have the manpower. We have the natural wealth. We have water. We have food. And yet we are not where we should be.?

Khalid Hasan notes that 1.2 billion people on the subcontinent would benefit form reconciliation. Peace would mean the elimination of the nuclear threat as well as the start of far-reaching economic and geopolitical developments. This could happen fast if there is enough political will, says Mr. Hasan.

?There are what I call breakthroughs ? the countries really move at a very fast pace and then dramatic things take place. For example, trade really opens up, consular restrictions, which are placed on travel and on tourism, and this sort of thing, disappear. Then sports contacts, cultural contacts, educational contacts, contacts in health and welfare and all kinds of other sectors really flourish.?

But most importantly, says the Pakistani journalist, peace would create an environment in which civil society has a larger role. For the past fifty years, the governments of both countries have had too much power and not used it in the best interest of their people, says Khalid Hasan.

?I am skeptical sometimes because of the bureaucracies of the two countries, which have not let any progress be made so far. So what we need is a clear political leadership, which would take these things into hand and really move forward. That?s what you need. There is no time to lose. We have lost 57 years and where are we questions Mr. Hasan.

He has good reason to worry. All previous peace talks have failed because both India and Pakistan claim the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan, which was formed at the end of the British rule in India specifically for the Muslim population, claims Kashmir because its population is also majority Muslim. At the time of separation, Kashmir was under Hindu rule, and so India claims it, too.

Teresita Shaffer, director of South Asia studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the two countries still have radically different ideas of what a settlement should be. ?For Pakistan, some change in the territorial disposition of Kashmir is still a very important touchstone. India?s cardinal rule still is that the border can?t change. The only compromise they would be able to accept at this moment is to turn the existing line of control into an international border,? says Teresita Shaffer.

To avoid issues of control, most Kashmiris advocate independence. Kannan Srinivasan, a political analyst and scholar from Bombay, says they will not accept any division of the state of Jammu and Kashmir: ?And any deal which is made without giving very substantial autonomy to the people of Kashmir is one which will not be acceptable in Kashmir and will not work.?

Mr. Srinivasan says for a long-term solution requires many concessions on all sides. But leaders who make them lose the support of their hardliners, who remain very influential.

However, analysts note, there has been no major criticism of current peace efforts on any side. And that?s a good sign. Teresita Shaffer says even if the talks continue for many years, they offer the best prospects for peace between India and Pakistan.