THE RISK OF war between India and Pakistan has drawn anxious world attention, and with good reason. Consider the fact of heightened tensions over Kashmir between states that have already gone to war three times (twice over Kashmir) and the even starker fact that both states could end up fighting with nuclear arms. The recent mission to the area by White House aide Robert Gates did seem to help the two to pay closer attention to military steps troubling to the other as well as to better understand foreigners' concern. A certain welcome back-from-the-brink relief is now evident on the South Asian scene.

It would be foolish, however, to conclude that the crisis has passed. Its source, the 40-year dispute over Kashmir, remains untreated by political conciliation or international mediation. Its recent aggravation, by Indians repressing Kashmiri militants and Pakistanis encouraging them, goes on. Under the slight relative improvement visible on the surface of Indian-Pakistani relations lies a churning conflict in Kashmir that could yet explode.

No one has come up with a practical plan to assure Kashmiris even the element of choice of whether to join India or Pakistan that Kashmir's Hindu ruler preempted when he took his Moslem-majority state into India at the time of decolonization in 1947. Nor was Pakistan slow to exploit Indian political lapses in Kashmir in the mid-1980s by arming a separatist minority. But the Indians' harshness and brutality in response may have helped turn what they describe not as Kashmiri nationalism but as "Islamic fundamentalism" into a majority cause. They have barred international human rights observers and journalists, insisting that Kashmir is an internal matter. But reports persist of killings in the hundreds, detentions in the thousands, torture and other pervasive police abuses.

The Kashmir issue is embedded deep in the psyches and politics of the two countries and does not lend itself easily to being plucked out for isolated treatment. But certain things are essential and feasible, nonetheless, in addition to continuing efforts to ease the larger state-to-state confrontation. In Kashmir, India must lighten its hand and find ways to widen the realm of popular choice. Pakistan must ease off its policy of using the ethnic issue to offset India's overall advantage in power. The two countries are playing with the lives of Kashmiris and the life of their home.