With its fabled valley nestled between the Pir Panjal and Great Himalayan mountains, its rich religious mix of Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufi Islam, the territory of Kashmir was once celebrated for its beauty and its culture of tolerance, or "Kashmiryat."
But Kashmir, a Muslim-majority state divided between India and Pakistan after they gained independence in 1947, has become a land of tragedy. Twice the cause of wars between India and Pakistan, Kashmir could yet trigger a third war, this time a nuclear clash that would kill millions and doom the global war on terrorism.
So, suddenly, the Bush administration is focusing very hard on what to do about Kashmir.
Of necessity, President Bush is trying to defuse the immediate crisis: the failure of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to stop the flow of Islamic terrorists from Pakistani-held Kashmir into Indian-controlled Kashmir. Bush has urged Musharraf to end the infiltration; he's also called on India to forego a military assault against terrorist camps in Pakistani Kashmir, lest the fighting spiral out of control and push smaller Pakistan to use nukes.
The temptation for the administration will be to regard this crisis over Kashmir solely as a terrorist problem. That is certainly how India presents it, especially after Sept. 11.
But the Kashmiri issue will retain its potential to provoke a war unless the administration prods Pakistan and India to rethink the underlying political issue: Who should rule the people of Kashmir?
To find the answer one must look back at Kashmir's sad history. Its Hindu maharajah opted to join with India in 1947, after an invasion by Pakistani tribesman (probably sent by the new government of Pakistan). The United Nations called for Pakistani forces to withdraw from the third of Kashmir they seized, in order to permit Kashmiris to vote on whether to join India or Pakistan. Neither the withdrawal nor the vote ever took place.
No one ever asked the Kashmiris whether they would prefer independence to joining Pakistan or India (most would). Pakistan believes it should be the home for all the subcontinent's Muslims, while India fears the loss of Kashmir would provoke separatist thought among 150 million Muslim citizens in its secular state.
Still, Indian-held Kashmir might have prospered had New Delhi continued to grant it the autonomy that had been promised in 1947. Instead, Indian repression and rigged local elections alienated Kashmiris, and provoked Kashmiri separatist movements. India poured immense numbers of soldiers into the region and tens of thousands of Kashmiris died in fighting or reprisals.
Not surprisingly, Kashmiryat traditions in the predominantly Muslim Kashmir valley broke down, and thousands of local Hindus fled. Radical Pakistani and Arab Islamists who had trained to fight in Afghanistan took up the Kashmir cause. Based in Pakistani Kashmir and helped by Pakistani intelligence, they not only targeted Indians but tried to impose radical Islam on moderate Kashmiris. They also indoctrinated many Kashmiri youths on the Indian side.
Caught between Pakistani Islamists and Indian military repression, ordinary Kashmiris were never asked what they really wanted.
"Their point of view must be taken into consideration if there is to be a solution to the conflict over Kashmir," says Farooq Kathwari, a Muslim Kashmiri-American, who has done some of the most original thinking on this subject.
Kathwari left Kashmir in 1965 to study for an MBA at New York University and rose to become CEO of the furniture company, Ethan Allen Interiors Inc. A personal tragedy impelled him to get involved in the Kashmiri issue. In 1992, his son Imran, a student at McGill University, was killed in Afghanistan; the young man went without his parents knowledge to fight the Russian-backed regime (that America opposed) in Kabul. Says Kathwari, "We have to do something positive to save young people, to create sanity, not to let young people die in this way."
So Kathwari created the Kashmir Study Group, an independent body of experts on the region, and has himself met with Musharraf and top Indian leaders. The Study Group's conclusion (not endorsed by either side): Kashmiris should have the right to rule themselves within India or Pakistan, a limited sovereignty that leaves Kashmir divided but without the presence of either Indian or Pakistani troops.
The Study Group may not have the perfect formula. But it has the right approach. The Bush team should take notice.
Only when Indian, Pakistani and Western leaders focus on the needs of ordinary Kashmiris, will they find the way to end the conflict over Kashmir.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.