Will the current simmering conflict over Kashmir lead to another subcontinental war? This complex question has plagued India-Pakistan relations since both countries gained independence in 1947, and over the past year tensions in the area have risen sharply. Continuing border skirmishes threaten an already precarious situation, in which international and domestic politics are intertwined with the passions of rival ethnic, religious and partisan interests.
Three decades ago concerned diplomats in capitals near and far were acutely sensitive to the stresses of Kashmir. The United States, the Soviet Union and, at times, China were all engaged at varying levels of intensity; superpower rivalries focused on Kashmir, which sometimes stood as a surrogate for larger global interests.
Now the global situation has altered, even as the basic tensions of Kashmir remain the same. Washington, Moscow and, to a certain extent, Beijing share common interests in ensuring that the two belligerent nations of the subcontinent do not inadvertently stumble into a major conflagration that neither India nor Pakistan could afford, and that could even lead to nuclear escalation.
A new generation of policymakers has lost its predecessor's sensitivity to the Kashmir conflict, as other world crises have competed for attention. Now the fashioning of an American policy appropriate to this potentially volatile situation entails first of all renewed understanding of the forces that led up to it.
The Kashmir conflict is rooted in the colonial history of the subcontinent. At the time of British withdrawal from the subcontinent two competing visions of state-creation animated the nationalist political leaderships. One vision, championed by Jawaharlal Nehru, was quintessentially secular and democratic. This view held that British India's diverse religious, linguistic and ethnic groups could coexist only under the aegis of a strong secular state. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, challenged Nehru's vision of a unified Indian subcontinent. Jinnah contended that the Muslims of the subcontinent constituted a nation separate from the rest of (Hindu) India, with a distinct religious heritage and markedly
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