Kashmir: Flashpoint on Volatile Subcontinent

Fifty years after independence from British colonial rule, the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir remains a flashpoint in relations between India and Pakistan.

Tension between the South Asian neighbors have risen to a new pitch after India detonated five nuclear devices, and Pakistan retaliated with six, last month.

Following international condemnation of the tests, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee told parliament that India wanted to initiate a dialogue with Pakistan and was willing to discuss the contentious issue of Kashmir as well.

India and Pakistan claim territorial sovereignty over the whole of Kashmir although India controls two-thirds of the Muslim-majority province. The remainder, Azad (Free) Kashmir, is ruled by Pakistan.

The neighbors have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, and India accuses its Muslim neighbor of waging a "proxy war" by abetting militancy in the Indian part of Kashmir.

India alleges that Pakistan has been arming and training militants in Kashmir since 1990, when separatists launched an uprising against Indian rule.

Kashmiri militants stepped up their anti-Indian campaign in 1987, when assembly elections widely condemned as rigged brought to power Farooq Abdullah's National Conference party in alliance with the Congress party, which was ruling in New Delhi.

The revolt, seeking independence or accession to Pakistan, heated up in 1990, and India responded by deploying additional paramilitary troops and imposing direct rule from New Delhi.

The violence has claimed at least 25,000 lives in the region of spectacular mountain scenery, noted for its lakes with houseboats moored on tranquil waters.

More than 300,000 Kashmiri Hindus have fled the scenic Kashmir Valley and taken refuge in Hindu-dominated Jammu, the winter capital of the province, and elsewhere in India.

State legislature elections in September 1996 ended several years of direct federal rule and returned Abdullah to power.

The dispute over Kashmir has its roots in the 19th-century rivalry between Britain and Russia for regional supremacy. The British had set up a vaguely-defined princely state in 1846 to act as a buffer between the Raj in the south and Russia and China in the north.

The fertile fruit-growing Kashmir Valley became a summer haven from the heat and dust of the Ganges plain to the south and its famous houseboats first appeared as a way round a ban on the British owning land or building houses.

Kashmir became the bone of contention in the subcontinent in August 1947 when the country was partitioned on religious lines to create Muslim Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India.

Kashmir, which has a Muslim majority, was expected to go to Pakistan, but its Hindu ruler Hari Singh wanted to stay independent.

However, faced with a revolt in the west and the threat of an invasion by Pathan tribesmen from Pakistan, Singh hastily signed an instrument of accession to India in return for military aid.

The accession triggered the first war between the neighbors immediately after partition.

When the two countries signed a ceasefire in 1949, one-third of the disputed province was in Pakistan's hands.

A second war in 1965 left positions virtually unchanged but convinced neither side to drop its claim to the whole of the territory.

The two countries fought a third war in 1971, when Indian troops helped East Pakistan to break away and become Bangladesh.

India and Pakistan have not fought a war since 1971, but frequently accuse each other of unprovoked firing across the "line of actual control," the frontier.

Pakistan has always maintained that the fate of Kashmir should be decided by a plebiscite, and India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru agreed in principle.

United Nations resolutions adopted in the 1950s envision a plebiscite in the province to decide whether it will join Islamic Pakistan or Hindu-majority India.

India, however, contends that the 1972 Simla Agreement, in which the two countries agreed to negotiate a solution to the dispute, overrides Nehru's agreement and refuses a plebiscite.