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Tuesday, 21 March, 2000, 10:46 GMT
Kashmir: Can the US help?
An Indian soldier surveys Kashmiri citizens in Srinagar
An Indian soldier surveys Kashmiri citizens in Srinagar
By Daniel Lak in Delhi

The latest killings in Kashmir force the issue to the top of the agenda as US President Bill Clinton meets Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari.

Delhi accuses Pakistan of fomenting violence and instability in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir by encouraging Muslim militants to fight security forces.

Islamabad says it is a human rights problem, and that the militants are part of an indigenous uprising against Indian rule.

The two countries have fought two wars in the past 53 years - and came close to a third last year - over the Kashmir issue.

Mediation unlikely

India rejects any international mediation because a treaty with Pakistan signed in 1972 commits the two countries to resolving their disputes between themselves.


Clinton
Mr Clinton dubbed Kashmir "the most dangerous place in the world"
Indian officials also mistrust Washington, which has a history of being closer to Islamabad than Delhi on regional issues.

But with President Clinton's visit, growing trade links, and what is seen here as a gradual shift in US perceptions of tensions on the Indian subcontinent, many people are starting to ask if there might indeed be some role for Washington to play in the Kashmir dispute.

Those questions are so far confined to the opinion columns of newspapers and backroom discussions at think tanks in Delhi, but there is no doubt that the debate could come into the open.

Not that India would ever consider having a mediator travelling from one capital to another putting up proposals, as Pakistan and some separatist leaders in Indian Kashmir would like.

But it is not inconceivable that Delhi might see a role for another country, or multilateral agency, in guaranteeing any future solution that could be sold to the people of both countries by political leaders.

No one seriously thinks President Clinton is here to begin or even suggest such a role.

But implicit in his warnings that peace and stability are essential to keep trade and development on course is a great deal of encouragement for an open-minded approach to what have been rigidly held positions in both capitals.

Since the US has not really engaged India meaningfully in recent decades, there is no saying whether there is any prospect of that in the medium or even long term.

Shifting attitudes

What Washington and many in the subcontinent believe is that attitudes will shift and become less entrenched as new generations of leaders take over - people without direct memories of the bitterness of the partition of India at independence, and subsequent years of war and anger across borders.


An Indian soldier examines the bodies of militants
India accuses Pakistan of backing Muslim militants
The Americans are indirectly encouraging that, with support for cultural exchanges and backing those who think the unthinkable.

Recent proposals along those lines include

  • independence for Kashmir
  • sovereignty well short of independence - without firm allegiance to either India or Pakistan
  • transforming the current uneasy status quo of a divided territory into international fact.

Supporters say the models put forward are less important than the continuing process of working through possible solutions.

The implication is that people can change long-held perceptions at least to admit notions that were once unthinkable.

Keep talking

The examples of Northern Ireland and the Israeli-Arab peace processes are often used to show how it takes incremental changes in thinking before even the least dramatic progress can be made.


Soldiers search civilians in Srinagar
India stepped up security ahead of Mr Clinton's visit
The key, say experienced negotiators and mediation experts, is to convince opposing parties that a recognition of even the slightest common ground is the beginning of a solution.

To keep them talking no matter what the external circumstances is also seen as crucial.

India and Pakistan do know that there is common ground, and they are aware of all the potential solutions to their Kashmir dispute.

But so far they have been constrained by history and politics from making any significant progress.

Optimists say President Clinton's visit holds a glimmer of hope for changes.

And even a glimmer is welcome in what has been a bleak situation for more than half a century.

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 Kashmir: Should Clinton mediate?

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15 Mar 00 | Americas
Dhaka looks for dollars
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