A tense standoff in Kashmir

India and Pakistan stand poised for war in the Himalayan foothills of Kashmir. As the nuclear powers pack the disputed border with troops and weaponry, diplomats are trying to avert a full-blown confrontation. What are India and Pakistan fighting about?

What is at stake?

Kashmir is a picturesque region of snowcapped peaks and clear lakes on the northwestern edge of the Himalayas, at India’s northern tip. It covers 86,000 square miles, making it slightly larger than Kansas, and is home to about 11 million people. About 60 percent of them are Muslims and 40 percent, Hindus. The region’s green valleys have been prized for their postcard beauty for centuries, and during the British Raj they offered foreigners and India’s well-to-do a cool escape during Delhi’s steamy summers. Sir Walter Lawrence wrote in his 19th-century book The Valley of Kashmir, “The valley is an emerald set in pearls; a land of lakes, clear streams, green turf, magnificent trees and mighty mountains where the air is cool, and the water sweet, where men are strong, and women vie with the soil in fruitfulness.”

Who controls Kashmir?

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Both India and Pakistan, and that’s the problem. The two nations have been fighting over Kashmir ever since they gained independence from Britain in 1947. The departing colonial rulers divvied up the subcontinent between predominantly Hindu India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan. But with millions of Muslims in India and millions of Hindus in Pakistan, the partition didn’t end bitter-and often bloody-religious strife. Kashmir’s hereditary ruler in 1947, the Hindu Prince Maharaja Hari Singh, had hoped to win sovereign status for his own people rather than declaring allegiance to either Pakistan or India. But when Islamic rebels tried to overturn his government, Singh accepted Indian dominion in exchange for military support. India and Pakistan have fought two wars over the territory, in 1947 and 1965, with each now controlling part of Kashmir. To this day, Pakistanis argue that since Kashmir is predominantly Muslim, it should be part of Pakistan.

How is the territory divided?

A United Nations-monitored cease-fire line cleaves Kashmir in two. About one-third of Kashmir, a section that is home to 3 million people, lies on Pakistan’s side of the provisional border, known as the Line of Control. The rest makes up the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, with a population of about 8 million, a majority of them Muslim. Since 1950, the country’s constitution has afforded the region greater autonomy than the other 27 Indian states.

What do Kashmiris want?

There has never been a vote to determine the people’s will. A United Nations resolution at the end of the first Kashmir war, in 1948, called for a plebiscite to allow citizens to choose between Indian and Pakistani dominion. But India, knowing that the majority of Kashmiris are Muslim, won’t consent to a vote. Some locals want independence, the so-called third option, but neither Pakistan nor India find this idea appealing.

What started the latest showdown?

Kashmiri militants launched a suicide assault on India’s parliament last month, and Delhi accused Pakistan of supporting the attackers. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has demanded the arrest of a list of suspects, but Pakistani authorities say they won’t act against the accused plotters without proof. Pakistan has nevertheless detained the leaders of the two groups India holds responsible—Lashkar e-Tayyiba, or Army of the Righteous, and Jaish-e-Mohammed, or Army of Mohammed. Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf says he is ready to sit down for peace talks “any time, any place, at any level,” but Vajpayee says talks can’t start until Pakistan abandons what he calls an “anti-India mentality” and clamps down on “cross-border terrorism.”

Who are the rebels?

Kashmir’s militants fall into two principal groups-indigenous separatists and foreign Islamic militants. Local nationalists launched their insurgency in the late 1980s, led by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. Indigenous opposition to Indian rule is now concentrated in the All Parties Huriyat Conference, which is pushing for greater autonomy through political channels. In the last decade, foreign fighters have streamed into Kashmir from Pakistan. These Islamic forces have declared a holy war against India, which is 80 percent Hindu, and vowed to drive it out of Kashmir. The 12-year insurgency has cost 60,000 lives.

What is the rebels’ relationship to Pakistan?

Authorities in Islamabad say they give only moral and political support to the militants. But India has accused Pakistan of masterminding their attacks. The U.S. and other nations believe Pakistan provides money, training, and guidance to numerous rebel groups, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has branded the groups that attacked the parliament as terrorist organizations. Vajpayee has made political use of President Bush’s declaration of war on terrorists and “the states that support them,” insisting that India has the right to send its army into Pakistan to root out its enemies.

Why are diplomats worried?

A military conflict between the two nations could be bloody and even catastrophic, because both countries now have nuclear weapons and have talked of using them. India is struggling to make a name for itself as a regional power, and has pumped a fortune into developing a nuclear arsenal to rival that of its mightiest neighbor, China. Pakistan is racing to catch up, and tested its first nuclear weapons three years ago. During the last intense military battle between the two South Asian nations—outside the Kashmiri town of Kargil in May 1999—high-ranking officials traded nuclear threats across the border. Passions quickly cooled and the skirmish fizzled, but not before alerting the world to the danger of a nuclear fight over Kashmir.

The balance of power

Any fight between these two South Asian neighbors would likely be one-sided, military analysts say. India is much larger, with 1.1 billion inhabitants to Pakistan’s 150 million. Pakistan has tried to overcome the inherent disadvantage of its size by spending a greater share of its national wealth on guns and soldiers, but even that hasn’t leveled the playing field. India’s standing army of 1.1 million soldiers outnumbers Pakistan’s 2 to 1. New Delhi also had a head start developing its nuclear program; India began research decades ago, in an attempt to keep pace with China’s military. Estimates vary, but some defense analysts estimate India’s arsenal at 60 bombs, each about as powerful as the ones the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. Pakistan probably has just a few such weapons already assembled, with components on hand to build one or two dozen more.

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