Washington On New Year's Day, 1947, Clement Atlee, the unexpected prime minister of Britain, summoned Lord Mountbatten, hero of Burma, to No. 10 Downing Street and pressed upon him a daunting assignment to go to India as viceroy and bring that nation to independence. Lord Mountbatten was aghast, not because he didn't favor freedom for India (he did), but because he knew what an arduous operation this would be.
Lord Mountbatten made every demand he could imagine to force Atlee to reconsider and select somebody else. Finally, he insisted that he be given complete control of the situation in New Delhi with no oversight from London. The prime minister blanched at such audacity, but he agreed nonetheless, and Lord Mountbatten had no choice but to gather up his wife, Edwina, and go to India.
Lord Mountbatten had to negotiate with Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma, who was adamant in his wish to keep Muslims and Hindus together in one nation, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a lawyer who was fatally ill, who was just as determined to have an independent Pakistan. Jinnah prevailed, and Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a respected jurist, was dispatched to Southern Asia to establish the new boundary. He was chosen for the job because he had never been to that part of the world and would bring no prejudicing experiences to this historic decision.
Mr. Radcliffe drew his fateful line, and a bloodbath ensued. Since then, India and Pakistan have fought four wars 1947-1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999, most of them about the disputed territory of Kashmir. Part mountains; part valley, verdant and luscious; part barren stretches of nothing, it also is part Muslim (a majority), part Hindu and part Sikh and Buddhist. What better site for a holy war?
Now another one threatens to erupt as Indian troops mass along the Line of Control to warn Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, that he must stop supporting terrorist acts in and from Kashmir, such as the Dec. 13 attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi. Though he clings still to the idea of "freedom fighters" in Kashmir, Gen. Musharraf is acceding to the demands of Washington that he curtail terrorism emanating from his own country.
The great concern, of course, is nuclear weapons, possessed and tested by both sides of the South Asia conflict. But Sumit Ganguly, a professor at the University of Texas, assures us that these arms are well safeguarded in India, where the military is under firm civilian control, and in Pakistan, too. Both governments have the discipline, he insists, to avoid nuclear war.
There is still the worry, not unreasonable, that Muslim extremists might take over Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal at some point, but Mr. Ganguly considers this is highly unlikely. The army runs Pakistan, he says, and shows no sign of losing its grip on the country. Moreover, he argues that a nuclear balance of nerves has arrived in South Asia and cannot be dislodged. It's time to set aside our pressure for non-proliferation, he says, and work instead to calm the situation in Kashmir.
Mr. Ganguly believes that New Delhi never will relinquish the portion of Kashmir now under Indian control. He urges the Bush administration to press Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to restore a measure of autonomy to this part of Kashmir, restrain Indian troops in the territory and punish their human-rights violations. Also, he feels, the military presence gradually should be withdrawn.
What a more civil dispensation in Indian Kashmir would mean to Islamabad is not clear, though Mr. Ganguly apparently hopes it might prompt Pakistan to accept the futility of further fighting to take this land. Maybe so, but it will take some doing. At least Gen. Musharraf is willing now to entertain the idea of an autonomous Kashmir. The question is, under whose aegis would it exist? No doubt Mr. Ganguly is right: India would never give up its holdings in that section of the subcontinent. So Washington must persuade Pakistan to accept autonomy for Kashmir within a loose federal relationship to New Delhi.
Correspondent-at-Large Lee Cullum contributed to this column.