As the world watched and waited for U.S. military action in Afghanistan, a suicide car bombing took place on Oct. 1 outside the entrance to the state legislature in Srinagar, capital of Kashmir, killing 38 people. A Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, or Army of Mohammad, claimed responsibility. The bomb was a sharp reminder of another powder keg in that part of the globe--the face-off between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir.
The bombing confirms the worst fears of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In the wake of the attack on the U.S., he offered India's full support to President George W. Bush. Vajpayee saw a chance to build on the friendship that had begun to form between the two countries under the Clinton Administration--and draw attention to terrorism on India's own frontier. But to New Delhi's consternation, Bush turned to the country's longtime enemy, Pakistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan. Now, Vajpayee and other Indian leaders are worried that Pakistan-backed militants are stepping up attacks inside Kashmir. "Pakistan must understand that there is a limit to the patience of the people of India," Vajpayee warned in a letter to Bush after the Oct. 1 car bomb attack.
Clearly disappointed by the strengthening U.S. ties with Pakistan and its leader, General Pervez Musharraf, Vajpayee has been working overtime to stay in the diplomatic game. He has hurriedly dispatched envoys to European capitals and to Moscow to make India's case that Pakistan is backing terrorists in Kashmir. India is also deepening its ties with Central Asian nations such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which do not sympathize with Pakistan and now are staging grounds for a probable U.S. attack on Afghanistan. And Vajpayee's advisers are in contact with Tehran, which also supports the Northern Alliance and could be brought quietly in to help fight the Taliban. "No operation against the Taliban can be successful without co-opting Iran, and here we can help," says Gopal Parathasarthy, former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan.
Vajpayee seems to be trying to keep his options open: He is building and maintaining his own alliances, even while offering to be part of the Bush Administration's antiterrorism coalition. Before September 11, the Administration had been wooing India as an anchor in its planned missile-defense system and an outpost in Asia to counter a rising China and radical Islam. Now, acknowledges a State Dept. official: "Working with [the Pakistanis] against terrorism has tended to overshadow the relationship with India." Still, on Oct. 1-2, Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh met with Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. The Administration still wants strong relations with India over the long term, sources say.
HIGH ALERT. The danger is that military conflict in the subcontinent could spin out of control in the meantime. India has put its troops on high alert along its borders in Kashmir and Punjab. New Delhi is concerned that the dismantling of terrorist camps along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan could send a new batch of "holy warriors" into Kashmir. If violent clashes pick up, Vajpayee and his aides are even hinting that India could go on the offensive in the Kashmir conflict--possibly by shelling sites in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir some analysts say.
The Bush Administration hopes to avoid that. It's doubtful, however, that Washington has the diplomatic wherewithal to get the Pakistanis and Indians to sit down to talks anytime soon. When Bush called on allies to fight terrorism, both India and Pakistan hoped to gain an advantage in the Kashmir dispute by joining up. That regional conflict looks as intractable as ever.
By Manjeet Kripalani in Bombay, with Stan Crock in Washington