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India Reaches Out

May 13, 2003

When India and Pakistan talk about each other, they too often set off fears that missiles will start flying between the nuclear-armed neighbors, which have fought three wars since 1947. A deputy Indian prime minister last year called Pakistan a "terrorist state." The Pakistani president said his nation would use its "full might" if war came: nuclear weapons.

But this month the rhetoric has been reassuring: Diplomatic relations are being restored after a two-year rupture. It is even likely that leaders of the two nations will discuss, face to face, the issues that divide them.

Credit for the initiative to reduce tensions goes to Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee -- now 78 and, no doubt, hoping for a peacemaker's niche in history. Vajpayee has tried twice before to improve relations with Pakistan and been rebuffed. He said this would be the "last time" he would try.

Nor is the Indian leader stopping with Pakistan. On Monday, New Delhi announced that Vajpayee would visit China next month, the first trip there by an Indian prime minister in a decade. China fought a brief war with India in 1962, and the border between them is still in dispute. Beijing also is a major ally of Pakistan, so improved relations between China and India could reduce support for Pakistani saber rattling.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage visited Pakistan and India last week and said he was "cautiously optimistic" that Vajpayee's approach to Pakistan could lead to a process that would eventually resolve all issues. The two countries should try to agree on the less nettlesome problems first, including improving trade, sharing water supplies and exchanging cultural visits. Leave for later the intractable issue of Kashmir, parts of which are held by both countries and all of which is claimed by Pakistan.

Kashmir is the only predominantly Muslim state in India, a secular nation populated overwhelmingly by Hindus. Violence in the state has killed an estimated 60,000 people, most of them civilians, since 1989. Terrorists slipping across the border from majority-Muslim Pakistan have fomented much of the violence, although Pakistanis told Armitage the infiltration had stopped.

Impoverished India and Pakistan would benefit from spending less on defense and removing some of their tens of thousands of troops on the borders. China, if freed from the distraction of border problems with India, could give more attention to battling the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, which has spread into more than two dozen other countries, and to encouraging North Korea, another of its allies, to end its nuclear weapons program.

Muslim fundamentalists in Pakistan and their Hindu counterparts in India are adamant about opposing concessions to the other country. Vajpayee deserves support for not heeding the protests. Pakistani leaders should display equal political courage.

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