Nestled beneath the Himalayan Mountain, the Vale of Kashmir is one of the world's most beautiful valleys — and deadliest, a potential flashpoint for nuclear war.
Bounded by Pakistan, India, China and Afghanistan, it covers 85,000 square miles with 13 million people, 77 percent of them Muslims. They want independence or union with Pakistan, but most are in Hindu-ruled India, leading to more than half a century of conflict.
During the British Raj, Kashmir was a summer resort, or "hill station," for colonials fleeing the heat of the Indian plains. They stocked its streams with trout and its lakes with houseboats to get around a ban on foreigners owning land or building vacation homes there.
When the Asian subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947, Kashmir was supposed to remain independent. But its Hindu maharajah, Hari Singh, ceded the predominantly Muslim territory to India in return for military help to repel Pathan raiders from Pakistan.
That triggered the first Indo-Pakistani war, which ended in 1949 with one-third of Kashmir belonging to Pakistan and the rest in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. A second war in 1965 left the boundaries unchanged, and the two nations fought a third war in 1971 when Indian troops helped East Pakistan break away to become Bangladesh.
Muslim militants in the Indian portion of Kashmir launched a full-scale rebellion in 1990, tacitly assisted by Pakistan, which provided arms and sanctuary for the insurgents. Over the next 11 years, the guerrilla war killed more than 30,000 soldiers and civilians.
A dangerous new element was added to the confrontation in 1998 when India and Pakistan came out of the nuclear closet, staging tit-for-tat underground explosions and missile tests that led to the imposition of U.S. sanctions. The following year, under pressure from Washington, they tried to make peace with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee paying a rare visit to Lahore.
But the negotiations collapsed when India accused Pakistani troops of invading the Kargil region of Kashmir, leading to three months of heavy fighting and air strikes by both sides. As CIA Director George Tenet later told Congress, they "only narrowly averted a war that could have escalated to the nuclear level."
A coup in Pakistan further soured the atmosphere. Vajpayee vowed that he would never negotiate with the military regime in Islamabad and , even after Pakistani Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf made himself a civilian president, insisted that Pakistan halt all aid to the Kashmiri insurgents before talks could begin.
Thus it was somewhat surprising when Vajpayee sent Musharraf a note on May 25 inviting him to visit India "at your earliest convenience."
The resulting summit began Saturday in New Delhi, moves on to the Taj Mahal in Agra and ends in India's Rajasthan state on Monday.
For Musharraf, it's a chance to legitimize his regime and reduce the costly defense spending that eats up a quarter of Pakistan's annual budget. For Vajpayee, sickly and nearing the end of a long political career, a Kashmir solution would deflect attention from the bribery scandals plaguing his government and let him go down in history as the first Indian leader to bring peace to South Asia.
But analysts in both countries warn not to expect too much from the summit. They point out that India has resumed a military offensive against Kashmiri guerrillas without renewing a six-month cease-fire that expired in May.
Nevertheless, a dialogue between two nuclear-armed rivals is better than none. India is thought to have enough nuclear material to build 90 nuclear weapons and Pakistan half that number. Musharraf himself admitted in a recent interview that this "certainly puts a certain seriousness on both sides. One ought to consider this issue of our being nuclear very seriously."
The rest of the world does, and is relieved that they are at least talking to each other.
Holger Jensen is International Editor of the Rocky Mountain News. E-mail: email@example.com.