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Story Publication logo May 9, 2008

Has War Worn Itself Out in Kashmir?


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Today Maoist insurgents keen to exploit the state's enduring weaknesses stalk the Hindu heartland...

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An Indian soldier patrols the streets of Srinagar, Kashmir, where fighting between the military and militias appears to have decreased.

Srinagar, India -- Bullet holes are still visible along the commercial heart of Kashmir's capital, reminders of past gunbattles, bombings and suicide attacks that used to be an almost daily occurrence here.

Today, the only din is traffic and protesting bus drivers, who say the state owes them back wages. "It's been more than two years since we had any kind of explosion here," said Amir Amin, a shopkeeper. "We Kashmiris are so fed up with fighting, it's time we enjoyed business as usual."

In fact, hostilities have plummeted to their lowest level in nearly 20 years. In 2007, there were 777 politically related deaths, down from 1,116 in 2006 and 4,507 in 2001, according to the Institute for Conflict Management, a New Delhi security think tank.

60 years of tension

Tension dates back to the 1948 partition of India and Pakistan, when the Hindu ruler of Kashmir, a Muslim-majority state, opted to become part of India. Since then, two wars and numerous skirmishes have led each side to claim new territories. The border that divides Pakistan and India Kashmir, the latter known as Jammu-Kashmir, is called the Line of Control.

Most analysts say a deep sense of conflict fatigue along with diplomatic posturing by both India and Pakistan have ended most of the violence. But these same analysts also say peace is partly due to Pakistan's pressing need to combat radical militancy within its own borders. In recent years, brazen violence by al Qaeda militants and Taliban fighters along the border with Afghanistan, a separatist insurgency in the state of Balochistan, and suicide bombers infiltrating Pakistan's cities to kill scores of people have led to the redeployment of troops and resources once massed along the Line of Control.

"The principal stabilizing factor has been the increasing difficulties within Pakistan," said Ajai Sahni, director of the Institute for Conflict Management. "Pakistan doesn't want trouble with India at this juncture, because it would have to bring back those forces."

India has long accused Pakistan of arming and sheltering Kashmir militants, a charge Islamabad has always denied. Although Kashmir has been the cause of two of three wars the countries have fought against each other since partition - the other erupted after East Pakistan declared independence and asked India for help to become Bangladesh - both governments have worked to improve bilateral relations as part of a peace process that began in 2004. A cease-fire has allowed for the construction of a 330-mile border fence, which has made it difficult for Islamic militants to pass undetected, most observers say.

"Pakistan has apparently made it clear to the militants that violence will not be tolerated during the peace process," said Tahir Mohiudin, editor of the Kashmiri weekly newspaper Chattan in Srinagar. "There has been a clear shift in Pakistan's policy."

"The weakening of support for Pakistan-backed militants reflects a broad realization that Pakistan has only served its own interests," said Parviz Imroz, head of the Jammu-Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a human rights group. "Kashmiris no longer see Pakistan as a savior."

In the past 18 years, the conflict over Kashmir has claimed at least 43,000 lives, of which one-third were civilians, according to the group.

Chance for India

Gul Wani, a political analyst at the University of Kashmir, says the regional climate presents a rare opportunity for India to reach out to separatist and militant groups for a political settlement. "Generally speaking, violence is no longer considered to be an instrument of change," he said.

Despite the decline in violence, Jammu Kashmir remains heavily militarized, with more than 700,000 troops stationed in the region to combat no more than 450 militants, according to security officials. Along main roads, police in flak vests still stand guard every 200 feet, armored convoys still patrol the capital, and concrete bunkers have an air of permanence.

Yasin Malik, chief of the Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front, a former militant group turned political party, was first imprisoned as a student activist for printing a sticker of an independent Kashmir. He says he became a guerrilla leader because "there was no room for nonviolent struggle." Malik, who renounced violence in 1996, worries that young, frustrated Kashmiris might follow a violent path.

"If the people of Kashmir lose hope in dialogue," he said, "then definitely, they will go back to where I started."

Last month, one hundred residents took to the streets in Srinagar to protest the alleged mistreatment of Kashmiri detainees held in state prisons. Tires were set on fire, blocking traffic, as many shouted, "We want freedom, release the prisoners" and "stop human rights violations." Some threw rocks at police.

Rights activists say more than 1,400 Kashmiris are languishing in Indian jails, where prisoners are allegedly tortured and kept without trial. Indian officials deny the allegations and maintain that they investigate all complaints of abuse.

S.M. Sahai, Kashmir's inspector general of police, concedes the heavy security presence may be more than most Kashmiris would like, and he pledged to scale back his forces "depending on how the situation emerges."

Sahai maintains that Pakistan-based militant groups pose a constant threat given the volatile climate next door, especially during summer, when attacks typically increase. On the outskirts of Srinagar, five police officers and a militant were killed in March, which he says shows the region is not yet immune to sporadic violence, even though it was the first violent incident in more than eight months.

Meanwhile, tourists are trickling back to Kashmir. Government figures say there were more than 450,000 tourists in 2007, including some 25,000 foreigners. In February, the mountain resort of Gulmarg hosted national winter games, attracting thousands of athletes and spectators. A fifth world-class golf course is due to open this year in Jammu. And a bevy of discount airlines are docking at Srinagar's shiny new terminal. According to the chamber of commerce, overall business investment has soared from $200 million in 2001 to $2.3 billion in 2007.

At the same time, a new generation of politically savvy Kashmiris say India must do more to erase the war zone stigma that limits their political and economic prospects. But they insist the aversion to resort to violence should not be interpreted as a loss of nationalist fervor, which they say burns as hot as ever.

"We want peace here, but we also want our own state," said Falak Mahseen, a medical student. "Peace or no peace, this will never change."


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