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This week, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is scheduled to fly to the United States to meet with President Bill Clinton. Mr. Clinton is expected to once more press India to scale back its nuclear program and sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. He'll also ask the Indian government to make peace with Pakistan, which has been conducting its own nuclear tests. And he'll undoubtedly raise the matter of Kashmir, the disputed province where recent border clashes have claimed dozens of lives. When he visited India in March, Mr. Clinton called Kashmir the "most dangerous place on Earth."

Yet, earlier this summer, it seemed that tensions were actually easing. Senior Indian government officials met and stood side by side with masked "commanders" of the largest and best-armed secessionist Kashmir movement, the Hizbul Mujahadeen. It was their first ever official contact to discuss the mechanics of a three-month ceasefire, dramatically announced by Hizbul in July. The meeting was supposed to set the stage for a round of talks between the group's Pakistan-based leadership and the Indian government on the future of that mountainous, beautiful land, which for the last decade has been a bloody battleground.

Hizbul's olive branch alienated it from its fellow militant organizations and from the influential Islamic hardline party of Pakistan, the Jamaat-i-Islami, which claimed that it was not taken into confidence before the offer was made. For the Indian government, to be seen talking to blatant separatists without insisting that the talks be held "within the ambit of the Indian constitution," was also a marked departure from its stated positions. Yet there was a widespread political consensus in India that this opportunity should be exploited, because it represented the possibility of a genuine breakthrough -- hopes that have suffered since, in murderous border clashes and disputes over the return of the bodies of fallen soldiers.

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There have been demands for a more autonomous Kashmir within the Indian union for more than 50 years. In 1947, when India gained independence from British colonial rule and the nation of Pakistan was formed, following the partition of the subcontinent, the Hindu ruler of the predominantly Muslim kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir dithered over which country he would join. A year later, as Pakistani-backed marauders invaded Kashmir, he panicked and signed an instrument of accession with India that gave him military protection (though it could not prevent one-third of the territory from slipping into Pakistani hands).

As part of the deal, the maharajah wrested a bargain that Kashmir would enjoy special status in the Indian union. Article 370 of the Indian constitution guarantees Kashmir rights and privileges not given to any other province. Over the years, however, many of these powers have withered away.

Many Kashmiris resent this erosion of their rights and periodically political parties raise the question of autonomy; earlier this summer the Kashmir legislative assembly passed a resolution demanding restoration of special privileges. Some groups have gone further. Several militant organizations, determined to win independence, operate in the Valley, and throughout the 1990s terrorism in Kashmir reached unprecedented levels. The worst carnage took place this past August when unknown terrorists killed 90 civilians, including pilgrims heading for a Hindu shrine, migrant workers and local Kashmiris.

Many analysts proposed that the killings were an attempt by vested interests to sabotage the fledgling peace process and rouse hardliner opinion within India against the government's plans to talk to the Hizbul organization. That didn't happen -- the government went ahead, though not before openly accusing Pakistan of having a hand in the massacre.

For years, India has pointed a finger at Pakistan, accusing it of funding, training and arming terrorist organizations. Pakistan claims to have legitimate interest in Kashmir. As the only Muslim-majority state in India, its presence in the Indian union undermines the very notion behind the formation of Pakistan, that Hindus and Muslims are separate "nations" and cannot live together. Pakistan regularly campaigns against alleged human-rights abuses by Indian security forces and has put India under pressure on this score.

But while India has begun to realize that it will have to answer charges of human-rights violations by its troops, it has steadfastly rejected any Pakistani involvement in resolving the Kashmir problem. Even the decision to talk to the Hizbul Mujahadeen, says the Indian government, was taken because it is an organization of "our own people" -- that is, Kashmiris, as opposed to Pakistanis who have gone into Kashmir to fight a jihad against predominantly Hindu India.

Almost five decades ago, Josef Korbel, father of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, said in his book, Danger in Kashmir, "For today, as for the past seven years, the two great nations of the subcontinent, India and Pakistan, continue to dissipate their wealth, their strength, and their energy on a near fratricidal struggle in which the hitherto almost unknown State of Kashmir has become the physical battleground."

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That was in 1954. Today, the same words have an even more ominous ring. Yet the nine million people of Kashmir who have lived through terror must continue to hope. Sidharth Bhatia is a senior Indian journalist and commentator on domestic and foreign affairs.

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