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A Warm Wind in Kashmir

November 08, 2003

India's proposals to reduce tensions with Pakistan should provide a good starting point for talks between the nuclear-armed neighbors, which came perilously close to war less than two years ago. Pakistan last week sensibly ended its initial dithering and grumbling that the proposals were weak and agreed to discussions.

Each side again is guilty of gamesmanship, especially when it comes to the major sticking point of Kashmir, the cause of two of the three wars they have fought since becoming independent from Britain in 1947. The Himalayan state is divided between the two nations and both claim it all.

One new Indian proposal is to start bus service between the two capitals of the respective Kashmirs. Pakistan surprisingly accepted that offer, but added the condition that the United Nations monitor the border crossing and that passengers possess U.N. documents. That brought the expected rejection from the Indians, who contend that Kashmir is an issue between the two countries and should not involve the U.N.

Despite each country's maneuvers for political advantage, an agreement on such proposals as an expansion of bus links outside Kashmir and resumption of train travel between the two countries would represent progress. Tuesday's exchange of 74 Indian fishermen whom Pakistan arrested a year ago and 90 Pakistani fishermen arrested by India were encouraging. Such acts can lessen suspicions and, down the road, lead to talking about Kashmir.

Indian Kashmiris launched a campaign for independence more than a decade ago, provoking harsh reprisals from the Indian army and escalating violence that has left an estimated 60,000 dead. Pakistan, a Muslim nation, gleefully supported the uprising and backed factions that favored annexation by Islamabad. Kashmir is the only majority Muslim state in India, a secular nation with an overwhelmingly Hindu population. Pakistan also helped fighters cross into Indian Kashmir. The Indian government has said it is willing to discuss more autonomy for its part of Kashmir but ruled out independence. Indian Kashmiris are split between a faction wanting dialogue with New Delhi and hard-line separatists.

India's latest proposals, unfortunately, did not include suggestions to reduce the risk of nuclear confrontation. That should be an urgent topic.

Hotlines and other communication methods should be mandatory when next-door adversaries possess nuclear weapons. Both should formalize arrangements for notice of missile tests weeks in advance, not days. New Delhi and Islamabad must ensure that each understands the other's intentions. The United States, with decades of experience dealing with the Soviet Union on nuclear matters, should offer India and Pakistan all aid to reduce the risk of nuclear war.

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