Nuclear terror comes to Kashmir Conflict: The major dispute between India and Pakistan is drawing increased international attention since both became nuclear powers. But a quick end to their 51-year-old conflict is unlikely.

Sun Journal

July 15, 1998|By Gregg Jones | Gregg Jones,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

CHAKOTHI, Pakistan -- Sufi Zoarab, a devout Muslim with a flowing white beard, faces the west, falls to his knees and prays to Allah five times a day.

But like many of his neighbors in this farming village, a shell-scarred outpost on the front lines of Pakistan's standoff with India over Kashmir, Zoarab has another routine he practices with religious devotion.

He gazes to a Himalayan hill bristling with Indian army bunkers and machine-gun nests, and he dreams of an older brother and a home he hasn't seen in 50 years.

Zoarab, 65, fled his home village of Gawalta in 1947, shortly after Britain broke its South Asian colonial holdings into two independent countries: predominantly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan.

"I feel like I am without one arm," he says. "I am surviving only because of my hope that one day Kashmir will be free and I will be reunited with my brother. This is the dream of my life."

Over the past half-century, the long and bloody fight for control of Kashmir's stunning mountains and valleys has carried a tragically high price.

The conflict, including two wars between India and Pakistan directly related to Kashmir, has drained billions of dollars from the treasuries of two poor countries; it has claimed an estimated 60,000 lives, and it has divided tens of thousands of families.

After the recent series of nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, many analysts fear that the dispute in Kashmir could be the flash point that triggers the world's first exchange of nuclear weapons.

"The real dispute between India and Pakistan is over Kashmir," ++ says Mahmoud Chaudhry, prime minister of Pakistan's Azad Kashmir, or Free Kashmir state. "Everyone is starting to understand that if the Kashmir issue is resolved, there is no nuclear race in South Asia."

Last month, the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council called on India and Pakistan to exercise restraint and find "mutually acceptable solutions" to the "root causes of those tensions, including Kashmir."

The wording of the Security Council statement was condemned in Pakistan -- and hailed in India -- for conspicuously failing to ask India to implement 50-year-old U.N. resolutions that call for a plebiscite to allow the Kashmiri people to decide whether they want to be part of Pakistan or India.

Pakistani officials are confident about the outcome of such a vote, for good reason: Nearly 70 percent of the population in Indian-controlled Kashmir -- two-thirds of the land area -- is Muslim; nearly all of Pakistani Kashmir's 2 million inhabitants are Muslim.

At the same time, Pakistan has welcomed Japan's recent offer to facilitate mediation of the Kashmir dispute. India has categorically ruled out mediation, saying that the conflict must be resolved in direct discussions between the two countries.

In the aftermath of the nuclear tests that shocked the world, leaders of India's 4-month-old Hindu-nationalist government have intensified war concerns by making statements that Pakistani officials have interpreted as threats to invade Pakistani Kashmir.

Pakistani military authorities say that India is pouring more troops into its portion of Kashmir, bolstering its 650,000 troops and militia.

Pakistan has responded by arming residents of about 150 villages scattered along the "line of control," the heavily mined and fortified cease-fire line.

Troops are on high alert, and mule trains are moving more ammunition and supplies to forces stationed deep in the hills overlooking Chakothi and other villages along the line, commanders say.

Brig. Haider Khan, who commands the Pakistani brigade assigned to defend the center of the 480-mile-long cease-fire line, says that aggressive Indian actions have caused the number and severity of the cease-fire violations to soar.

"The effort is to cause harassment so the people will leave this area," he says. "Life along the line of control is a life of hell and misery."

The days after India's five nuclear tests conducted May 11 and 13 were especially terrifying for the people of Chakothi and other Pakistani villages scattered along the border. Indian troops taunted the people of Chakothi, shouting through megaphones: "Leave this area. Your time has come." Villagers say they braced for an invasion.

"We thought we would be slaves again, like we were to the British before," Zoarab says. "But this time our masters would be the Hindus."

But the Indian troops on the surrounding hills have fallen silent since Pakistan proved its own nuclear capabilities, Zoarab says. "India will now think twice before targeting us."

Hardly anyone holds out hope of a quick resolution to the stalemate that has spanned the life of both countries.

The dispute arose in 1947, as Britain was dividing its colonial holdings in the Asian subcontinent along religious lines between Pakistan and India. An overwhelming majority of Kashmir's population was Muslim, but its Hindu ruler decided that the state would become part of India.

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