Even as snow continues to fall in the Himalayan passes of Kashmir, there is an unexpected spring thaw in relations between South Asia's nuclear rivals. On May 18, Indian soldiers released by Pakistan after two years of imprisonment returned to their families. The emotional scenes illustrated renewed hopes for the region as confidence-building steps continued in South Asia. New Delhi and Islamabad are exchanging ambassadors and resuming travel links. In his latest visit to the region, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said he was "cautiously optimistic" that Prime Minister Vajpayee's diplomatic opening "could possibly lead to a step-by-step process that would eventually resolve all issues."

Relations between the two nuclear rivals took a precipitous turn after the terrorist attack on India's parliament in early December 2001, leading to a massive mobilization of troops along the border in Kashmir, and raising fears of a nuclear confrontation. Speaking to the press in Washington DC on May 14, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri said that after the war on Iraq, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had, perhaps, concluded that India and Pakistan should sort out their mutual difference to pre-empt the threat of any external intervention and pressure.

Both sides have to overcome hard-line nationalists in their countries. Vajpayee made his diplomatic opening towards Pakistan despite opposition from within his own party. Speaking after Vajpayee's move, the right-wing Hindu fundamentalist group RSS, which counts the prime minister and deputy prime minister among its members, claimed that it was highly imprudent to begin a dialogue with Pakistan until that country "stops sponsoring and supporting cross-border terrorism completely," including disarming the training camps in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf continues his positive response to Vajpayee despite opposition from Islamists and ultra-nationalists, who have always opposed rapprochement with India and who have gained a stronger foothold in the country since Musharraf decided to support the United States in the war against terrorism, and, even more so, since the US-led war in Iraq.

America's role has been critical to the steps taken. Gearing up for a June visit to Washington, President Musharraf is demonstrating his intentions to follow through with his assurances to Deputy Secretary Armitage. During the deputy secretary's visit to Pakistan, Musharraf reassured him that Pakistan would take action against the terrorist camps. Significantly, Pakistan is reportedly banning Hizbul Mujahideen and barring its activities in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Indian intelligence agencies had already indicated that Pakistan was disarming the militant group's camps. This group was designated a "terrorist group'' by the U.S. State Department just before Armitage's visit to Islamabad. Pakistan has also barred Maulana Masood Azhar, the leader of the outlawed Jaish-e-Mohammed, blamed for masterminding the December 2001 attack on Indian Parliament, from entering Pakistan-controlled-Kashmir.

These concrete steps are essential to the success of diplomacy in South Asia. While meeting Secretary of State Colin Powell in Moscow, India's Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha reiterated that Pakistan must end the violence and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure as a "practical necessity" for improving ties. The improved ground realities in Kashmir will, therefore, help vindicate Vajpayee's peace initiative in the face of radical opposition.

This thaw in relations takes place even as shelling continues across the Line of Control in Kashmir. In an interview with BBC Asia, Pakistan Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali voiced his hopes about this moment in South Asia, saying he thinks Vajpayee is "serious" about peace, even as he cautioned that "hawks" on both sides could derail the process. On May 14, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Kasuri expressed rare optimism over Kashmir, saying that chances of an agreement between India and Pakistan were better than ever before. And his Indian counterpart is reportedly talking formulas for dialogue, while India's usually combative defense minister, George Fernandes, talks of "road maps" being drawn for peace in South Asia. Significantly, Indian officials note a decline in the number of militants that have crossed over the Line of Control in Kashmir.

It is remarkable that these initiatives and expressed hopes are coming from within the region. Confidence is being built slowly, but surely. Armitage's "cautious optimism" is not misplaced. Any military conflict in South Asia still has the terrifying potential to escalate into a nuclear confrontation with catastrophic consequences. After nearly two years of tense relations the mutual peace overtures are a welcome relief.


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