The most serious mistake was made in 1987, when New Delhi colluded with the Kashmir government to steal an election. The Muslim-majority valley was about to vote in a coalition called the Muslim United Front. Suspicious of the Front's loyalties, local authorities stuffed the ballot boxes after the polls had closed with the connivance of New Delhi. The anger of those who had been cheated turned into sullen bitterness before it erupted into militancy, fueled by Pakistan and encouraged by a changing world order. As Kashmiris watched the Soviet Union defeated by a jihad in Afghanistan, and saw Central Asia emerge from the clutch of a tired bear, they began to believe that their independence was possible. But the insurgents and Pakistan both underestimated India's will to protect its national integrity. India used its strength, sometimes arbitrarily and excessively, but this was a battle of the heart it could not lose.
Force, however, is only a strategy. It cannot be a policy. New Delhi's answer to the latest dimension of the Kashmir problem lies in the re-establishment of the democratic process and the formation of a morally legitimate government in Kashmir. The present election comes at a crucial triple crossroad. America's clarity on terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks has knocked the foundation out of Pakistan's jihad in Kashmir. New Delhi's commitment to free and fair polls has resurrected faith in self-rule in the valley. And Pakistan's return to Army autocracy has ended any illusions Kashmiri Muslims might have entertained about their alleged benefactor. A Nielsen poll conducted in the middle of the election for the Asian Age, indicated that not even 1% of the valley's Muslims now want to join Pakistan.
The context makes this statistic even more astonishing. India is again in the throes of periodic insanity, with Hindu-Muslim conflict in the state of Gujarat reaching another crest of brutality. Gujarat has swayed on the edge of horror for months from Godhra, early this year, where Hindu pilgrims were torched in a train by Muslims, to the gruesome aftermath in which innocent Muslims were butchered with what many saw as the government's tacit encouragement, to the temple in Gandhinagar where last week two terrorists massacred Hindu devotees, including women and children.
But India's deviation from secularism has not diluted the faith Kashmiris have in it. Their moderate Sufi-based culture and value system is still the predominant ethic despite their persecution. One of the more startling findings of the Nielsen poll was that more than 95% of the valley's Muslims found the ethnic cleansing that drove Kashmiri Hindus out in the '90s repugnant; they wanted to see this authentic Kashmiri Hindu community resettled. This is a view with serious political implications, since a return of the Hindu population means renewal of a plural society. Of course, plenty of Kashmiri Muslims want azaadi independence but they too believe that a Kashmiri state would be incomplete without its distinctive Hindu minority. There is anger in Kashmir, but surprisingly little hatred. There is also a visible weariness of this long season of violence. The culture of the gun has had its night.
This then is the moment for reaching out. The electoral process is fragile, and much can still go wrong, but the achievable aspiration is that within a matter of weeks Kashmir will have an honestly elected legislature. After that it will be New Delhi's turn to deliver on its commitment to a dialogue with elected representatives, as well as with those groups like the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, which steadfastly opposes Indian rule and has boycotted the polls. This dialogue will be about options that include an unprecedented degree of autonomy, in an effort to bridge the divides that have cost Kashmir so dearly in lives and suffering.
Ironically, the Pakistani part of Kashmir remains imprisoned in a dictatorship, as does the rest of Pakistan. This makes a free vote on the other side of the border all the more galling to Pakistan's military regime, whose raison d'etre is either the bogey of war with India or the dream of absorbing Kashmir into Pakistan. If the threat is proved unreal, and the dream a mirage, Pakistan's rulers will have lost their justification for a permanent coup. There is more at stake in Kashmir than Kashmir.