WAR clouds may be gathering between India and Pakistan as a result of unchecked student violence in the Indian state of Kashmir. Military confrontation between the two regional ``superpowers,'' however brief, would be a war that few South Asians want but that many believe is unavoidable. Problems involving Kashmir touch sensitive Hindu-Muslim communal nerve endings in India and Pakistan. Their dispute over Kashmir goes back to the 1947 partition of Britain's former domains into the two nations of Pakistan - explicitly Muslim - and India - avowedly secular but heavily Hindu in numbers.
Although its population of 5 million was heavily Muslim, and despite an initial desire for independence, Kashmir, a princely state the size of Minnesota, acceded to India in 1948 while under attack from infiltrators from Pakistan. The decision was made by Kashmir's then rulers, a Hindu maharajah (father of the late Indian ambassador to Washington), and his Muslim prime minister, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the legendary ``Lion of Kashmir.''
In the years since, India and Pakistan have fought three brief wars, each growing out of unresolved residue of the 1947 partition. Twice the issue was Kashmir, where Pakistan forced a test of arms; in all three conflicts, Pakistan was the loser, as all agree it would be again. Today, each country controls about a third of the territory of Kashmir (the rest is mainly under Chinese rule). India's portion contains most of what is worth having in the state, including the storied Vale of Kashmir, known for its houseboats, scenic beauty, handicrafts, and beautiful women.
A plebiscite that the United Nations, in 1949, hoped would resolve the problem was never held, due mainly to Indian unwillingness to accept what could have been a dangerous precedent to the process by which rulers of most of the other princely states decided to join India. More than 40 years later, Indian and Pakistani troops remain entrenched along a UN-monitored ``line of control'' stretching from the plains to the snows of the high Himalayas.
The current crisis grows out of deeply rooted Kashmiri disaffection with India, accented by what has become chronic governmental instability in Srinagar. New Delhi took over direct rule some time back, using constitutional provisions under which India's parliament can directly govern a state when local governance fails. Violence erupted last December; it has continued despite vigorous repression and curfews.
Unlike earlier violent challenges to Indian authority in Kashmir, the current turmoil appears both spontaneous and political. Earlier spasms of violence in Kashmir were either provoked by deliberate Pakistani actions, as in 1948 and 1965, or had a local communal origin. External stimulus appears lacking in the present situation. And although student demands remain inchoate, independence, not union with Pakistan, seems their goal. Recourse to violence, and the willingness of otherwise docile Kashmiris to suffer its consequences, testifies to the extent of pent-up resentment at ``alien'' Indian rule.
With history as its guide, India alleges Pakistani complicity. But although the sympathies of Pakistanis are obvious, there is not hard evidence to support this charge. Pakistan denies involvement, while seeming to prepare for the worst as tensions rise on both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border. Ministers have met, but inconclusively; newspapers in both capitals feed public passions. India has appointed a cabinet-level trouble-shooter to deal with the situation; and India leaders - while seeking to improve ties in the region - have warned soberly of the possibility of war.
The government of Prime Minister V.P. Singh, which came to power after the crisis began, is constrained in dealing with Pakistan - especially on Kashmir - by its dependence on the support of a strongly nationalist Hindu party to remain in power. And India must deal with an even weaker government in Pakistan, where Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, struggling to master the art of democratic governance in a nation with little experience in this art form, cannot ignore public opinion on Kashmir and anxiety about Indian moves.
Three years ago, stronger governments in both countries narrowly averted conflict threatened by mindlessly provocative Indian military exercises on Pakistan's border. The weak governments now in place may allow themselves to be pushed by an aroused public opinion into a new conflict over Kashmir.
The political disruptions and economic costs of even a brief conflict would be considerable in South Asia. Moreover, war between India and Pakistan could threaten the tenure of moderate governments in both countries, resulting in wider instability in the region. It could even plunge Pakistan into a new round of authoritarian rule.