After Nuclear Tests, Test of Wills in Kashmir India-Pakistan Fighting Increases after Failed Talks; World Mediators Won't Get Involved

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Sri Narendra points outside his office to the baking midday streets of Delhi - cows meander, children beg, and men sleep on cots inches from the slow-motion anarchy of the city's traffic: "Do we look like we are preparing for war?" India's minister of information asks. "I hope not."

Abroad, reports might suggest a mounting crisis - heavier-than- usual shelling on either side of the disputed northwest border of Kashmir, between India and Pakistan, and accounts of massacres of civilians, including women and children, by terrorists from outside India.

Here, the situation is seen as business as usual.

Pakistan wants mediation

Behind the escalation of violence and rhetoric, a variety of diplomats say, is that a bid by Pakistan to use new tensions created by last spring's nuclear tests to "internationalize" the bitter, 50- year-old conflict over Kashmir. Pakistan has long wanted a third party to mediate its claim on the stunning Himalayan valley, a former mecca for tourists - to make the mainly Muslim Indian state a world cause, like Cyprus or Northern Ireland.

So far the bid is not working. Leading powers like the United States, Russia, and China are not willing to play a third-party role on Kashmir. One high-level US State Department official says there is "not one iota of interest anywhere in that."

At the same time, observers warn of an unintentional deepening of the crisis between the two acrimonious nuclear neighbors. Both governments are relatively unstable, and much of their recent belligerent rhetoric on Kashmir seems designed to whip up domestic anger.

Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif last week suggested the subcontinent is "on the brink" of war. Newly elected Hindu nationalist leaders in India early linked Kashmir to India's nuclear tests, and last week spoke of "crushing out all resistance."

"The raison d'etre of Pakistan is now Kashmir," says a senior Western diplomat here. "They see this as their historical moment. They want to prove that bilateral talks won't work, and so they are likely to keep things hot in Kashmir for at least eight weeks, or until the snows come. India is doing little to calm things down."

No imminent war

Despite the saber-rattling over Kashmir, there is deeply held popular understanding in both Pakistan and India that real warfare is out of the question.

"People here are sick and tired of Kashmir," says a retired art historian, finishing his fish and chips. "This is just PR by Pakistan. No one takes it seriously. We don't even discuss it anymore."

Still, given the bitterness of the issue, and the fact that the economically shattered government of Pakistan has staked so much political capital on the Kashmir claim, the most optimistic outcome expected by diplomats in the next few months is a lowering of the levels of rhetoric and terrorism on both sides of the border.

The less optimistic scenario is that the two sides will produce even greater levels of conflict in an attempt to appear strong and in control, with any number of negative dynamics emerging as a result.

"If a party will test a nuclear weapon to keep itself in power, the idea of provoking a border conflict might seem a minor issue," says one Western official. He was speaking of the nationalist Bhara- tiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition government elected in India last spring, which tested five nuclear weapons days after coming to power, and after assuring American diplomats that no tests were in the offing. …