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Next Stop, Srinagar

When the maharajah of Kashmir tried to make his state part of the new nation of India rather than Pakistan as the British beat a retreat from the subcontinent in 1947, he launched a dispute that has caused two wars and created a divide among friends and families that still endures.

India and Pakistan each seized part of Kashmir, and it remains the key issue in often-tense relations. But this month’s announcement that bus service will begin between the Pakistani and Indian segments of the disputed territory indicates that the two countries are making progress, slow though it may be.

Travel between the neighboring nations has never been easy, even when they were not shooting at each other. It often required crossing a border by foot, with lengthy delays on both sides. Bus service between Amritsar in India and Lahore in Pakistan, still being discussed, would help both countries by improving trade and tourism. But it is the planned April start of buses between Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-held Kashmir, and Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, that could be key to a more lasting thaw in relations.

For more than a decade, India has battled Kashmiris on its side of the border who want independence or union with Pakistan. An estimated 60,000 people have been killed, a good number of them innocent civilians. Indian security forces have been brutal in their campaigns. So have insurgents, many of them Islamic fundamentalist veterans of Afghanistan’s war against the Soviet Union. Kashmir is the only majority Muslim state in largely Hindu India; security forces in Pakistan, an Islamic nation, have assisted terrorists crossing into Kashmir.

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India and Pakistan nearly went to war for a fourth time three years ago after militants attacked the Parliament building in New Delhi. President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair telephoned the leaders of both countries to urge them to step back from the brink, especially because both countries have nuclear weapons.

Last year, India began withdrawing some of its hundreds of thousands of troops from Kashmir, an encouraging step forward in the peace process. Discussions on starting bus service -- there has been none between the separate regions since 1947 -- stalled over documentation. India demanded that passengers carry passports and visas, which would make the “line of control” established in 1972 between the two parts of Kashmir a de facto international border. Pakistan objected and said borders must be negotiated. The result was this month’s compromise -- passengers will have to carry identification, but not passports.

Pakistan needs to continue stopping terrorists from crossing into India; New Delhi needs to increase assistance to Kashmiris, who have suffered for decades. Both countries must keep negotiating matters like trade and safeguards against accidental nuclear launches. Bus service may seem like a small step, but it could be an important breakthrough toward a lasting cease-fire.


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