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After Nuclear Tests, Test of Wills in Kashmir

India-Pakistan fighting increases after failed talks; world mediators won't get involved.

Sri Narendra points outside his office to the baking midday streets of Delhi - cows meander, children beg, and men sleep on cots inches from the slow-motion anarchy of the city's traffic: "Do we look like we are preparing for war?" India's minister of information asks. "I hope not."

Abroad, reports might suggest a mounting crisis - heavier-than-usual shelling on either side of the disputed northwest border of Kashmir, between India and Pakistan, and accounts of massacres of civilians, including women and children, by terrorists from outside India.

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Here, the situation is seen as business as usual.

Pakistan wants mediation

Behind the escalation of violence and rhetoric, a variety of diplomats say, is that a bid by Pakistan to use new tensions created by last spring's nuclear tests to "internationalize" the bitter, 50-year-old conflict over Kashmir. Pakistan has long wanted a third party to mediate its claim on the stunning Himalayan valley, a former mecca for tourists - to make the mainly Muslim Indian state a world cause, like Cyprus or Northern Ireland.

So far the bid is not working. Leading powers like the United States, Russia, and China are not willing to play a third-party role on Kashmir. One high-level US State Department official says there is "not one iota of interest anywhere in that."

At the same time, observers warn of an unintentional deepening of the crisis between the two acrimonious nuclear neighbors. Both governments are relatively unstable, and much of their recent belligerent rhetoric on Kashmir seems designed to whip up domestic anger.

Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif last week suggested the subcontinent is "on the brink" of war. Newly elected Hindu nationalist leaders in India early linked Kashmir to India's nuclear tests, and last week spoke of "crushing out all resistance."

"The raison d'tre of Pakistan is now Kashmir," says a senior Western diplomat here. "They see this as their historical moment. They want to prove that bilateral talks won't work, and so they are likely to keep things hot in Kashmir for at least eight weeks, or until the snows come. India is doing little to calm things down."

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No imminent war

Despite the saber-rattling over Kashmir, there is deeply held popular understanding in both Pakistan and India that real warfare is out of the question.

"People here are sick and tired of Kashmir," says a retired art historian, finishing his fish and chips. "This is just PR by Pakistan. No one takes it seriously. We don't even discuss it anymore."

Still, given the bitterness of the issue, and the fact that the economically shattered government of Pakistan has staked so much political capital on the Kashmir claim, the most optimistic outcome expected by diplomats in the next few months is a lowering of the levels of rhetoric and terrorism on both sides of the border.

The less optimistic scenario is that the two sides will produce even greater levels of conflict in an attempt to appear strong and in control, with any number of negative dynamics emerging as a result.

"If a party will test a nuclear weapon to keep itself in power, the idea of provoking a border conflict might seem a minor issue," says one Western official. He was speaking of the nationalist Bhara-tiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition government elected in India last spring, which tested five nuclear weapons days after coming to power, and after assuring American diplomats that no tests were in the offing.

Conflict creeps out of area

Last week, along with carrying out attacks inside Kashmir, armed militants for the first time performed violent hit-and-run operations in neighboring regions. Two groups of 12 militants killed at least 34 people in Himachal Pradesh, south of Kashmir, police reports state, including the shooting of 28 highway laborers while they slept.

Rank bitterness between the two sides is a factor often lost in diplomatic discussions.

"This is not the kind of standoff that the US had with the Soviet Union over ideology," says Karan Sawhny, director of Peace Initiatives, a Delhi-based strategic think tank. "It is more the kind of animosity that the Germans had for the Jews, unfortunately."

Actually, the flare-up in Kashmir has not reached the levels of violence seen in 1990 and 1991, when local Muslim young men (called "the boys"), inspired by the liberation struggles in East and Central Europe, started a home-grown insurgency movement.

Since that time, the Indian security forces, which now total some 700,000 men in Kashmir, have largely put down the local insurgents.

Most of the current violence comes from outside, say Western and Indian intelligence sources - usually Muslim militants from Pakistan or Afghanistan slipping across the mountainous border.

In Delhi, discussions of Kashmir, whether with government officials or rickshaw drivers, last about three sentences before the subject of the nuclear tests comes up. The climate created by the tests and the BJP government, which has a long history of tacit support of communal tension, has, for the first time, brought out various voices on the left, some support tests but do not support tying nuclear weapons to Kashmir, as Home Minister Advani, a leading BJP theorist, has done.

Last week Prof. Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas Gandhi and a former member of parliament, suggested that Indians not close their minds to the possibility of third-party mediation. On Thursday 5,000 writers, intellectuals, labor leaders, and schoolchildren - led in part by Arundhati Roy, author of the bestseller "The God of Small Things" - marched through downtown Delhi urging the government to disarm or at least not weaponize its nukes.

Hopes for serious talks between India and Pakistan on Kashmir and nonproliferation were dashed at an important regional conference two weeks ago in Sri Lanka.

The Americans, who have taken the diplomatic lead on South Asia, hoped the two prime ministers would find some elusive common ground. Since India's atomic tests in May and Pakistan's in June, US Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott has met with the foreign ministers of the two countries three times, with a fourth meeting scheduled for late this month.

Pushing the Test Ban

Mr. Talbott is urging both governments to reverse long-held positions by signing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty, and to stop plans to weaponize and deploy nuclear explosives - in exchange for a complete lifting of sanctions.

The American missions have met with some unofficial success, sources say. The UN General Assembly meeting in late September is being discussed as a forum that may showcase this progress. Last week Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee for the first time began to soften his tone on the nuclear test ban treaty, suggesting it might be possible to sign.

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