Trouble in Paradise

April 26, 1993

Generations of Kashmiris have regarded their lovely valley in the foothills of the Himalayas as the Switzerland of Asia. In terms of physical beauty, the term was apt. But some of them also hoped that their homeland would become a Switzerland politically -- a neutral, prosperous enclave between hostile India and Pakistan. It was never a practical dream. Now it is particularly forlorn as Kashmir threatens to become the vortex of a very dangerous confrontation between India and Pakistan.

Kashmir is one of the world's least tractable territorial disputes. It dates back to the partition of British India into today's India and Pakistan in 1947. In general the lines between the two nations were drawn on religious lines with creation of a Muslim homeland in Pakistan. According to the principles underlying the British partition plan, Kashmir, with a Muslim majority, should have become part of Pakistan. But its Hindu ruler, who was in theory sovereign over the princely state through a legal fiction, chose to join India. War broke out, and the territory was divided by a U.N.-brokered cease-fire agreement. A plebiscite was to have followed, but India never permitted one. As far as India is concerned, Kashmir is irrevocably Indian. Pakistan refuses to concede. They have fought three wars. A fourth could be catastrophic.

Both nations are no more than a step short of possessing nuclear weapons, which they are not likely to use against anyone except each other. Both governments have domestic troubles of the kind that sometimes tempt shaky leaders to distract people with foreign adventures. Religious fundamentalism is becoming a threat to the centrist political leaders of both countries. Pakistan's President Ghulam Ishaq Khan has fired Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and ordered new elections. India's Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao is struggling to beat back an occasionally violent challenge from the right-wing Hindu nationalist party.

Neither India nor Pakistan has clean hands in Kashmir. Indian rule over the decades has been repressive and has become increasingly harsh in recent months. Pakistan has periodically -- and thus far unsuccessfully -- attempted to foment rebellion in the valley. India can drive Muslim Kashmiris into Pakistan's arms with more repression but won't give up the valley without a fight.

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