THROUGH MUCH of this year, the mountainous territory of Kashmir has threatened to trigger a catastrophic war between India and Pakistan. The danger remains, despite the recent redeployment by India of some of the troops it had massed along the border. Yet there is also new hope for progress toward a settlement of the 50-year-old political dispute that has made Kashmir a flashpoint. The predominantly Muslim population of the territory, divided between India and Pakistan, has suffered since 1989 from a multi-sided war involving Kashmiri militants seeking independence, the Indian army and terrorist infiltrators from Pakistan, many of them armed and trained by the Pakistani military. More than 33,000 people have died, while attempts to broker peace or even a cease-fire have gone nowhere. Now a new provincial government in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has promised to open talks with separatist groups, release political prisoners and ease the army's often repressive tactics. Though a real solution is a long way off, this is at least a start.
The promising change has been brought about by one of the more impressive exercises of democracy in the world this year. For years state elections in Kashmir have been distorted by fraud; this fall the Indian government promised, and mostly delivered, a clean process. Separatist parties boycotted the election, and extremists launched an all-out campaign to stop voters from going to the polls. Yet, though some 700 people were killed in preelection violence, nearly half of Kashmir's voting population courageously turned out. The result was a repudiation of the local political dynasty that had controlled the province for decades and done nothing to address its deep political divide.
In its place is a new government backed by India's Congress party and a moderate Kashmiri movement; its leader, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, has promised "a healing touch." Mr. Sayeed has begun well, releasing important political prisoners, including the leader of the separatist movement that launched the indigenous armed rebellion 13 years ago. His aim is to open talks with the rebels while easing conditions for the general population by scaling back military operations and investigating human rights abuses. If all goes well, the Kashmir dialogue could expand to include the Indian government and perhaps some representatives of Pakistan.
No progress will be possible, however, if Mr. Sayeed's government does not get cooperation from both India and Pakistan. India's nationalist ruling party looks with suspicion on the new Kashmir government, and some of its ministers are already accusing Mr. Sayeed of encouraging terrorism with his conciliatory tactics. Far worse is the behavior of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who has blatantly broken his promise to the Bush administration to control the infiltration of terrorists from Pakistan to Kashmir. A coordinated series of terrorist attacks inside Kashmir has killed more than 40 soldiers and civilians in recent days; meanwhile, the leader of the foremost Pakistan-based terrorist organization was released from house arrest. Mr. Musharraf's renewed tolerance of the terrorists threatens not just to spoil Kashmir's fragile political progress, but also to return Pakistan and India to the brink of war. The Bush administration must hold him accountable.