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POLITICS-INDIA: Kashmir Cauldron Boils Again

Analysis by Sujoy Dhar

NEW DELHI, Aug 1 2010 (IPS) - The sight of armoured vehicles and soldiers in battle gear out in Kashmir’s streets in July is a grim warning of a storm gathering yet again over the restive valley.

It heralded the return of turbulence in Jammu and Kashmir, India’s Muslim-majority state and the cause of three wars with neighbour Pakistan, after a period of relative peace after residents took part in elections in December 2008.

The current situation in Kashmir, especially in its picturesque capital Srinagar, is a throwback to the violent late 1980s and early 1990s that saw the casualty count rise to more than 50,000 people, mostly civilians.

But on Jul. 7, the Indian army was called in not to fight the gun-toting militants of the old days but groups of stone pelters, angry youngsters who grew up in the bitter years of the insurgency that started in 1989.

Kashmiri separatists want to break out of Hindu-majority India and form a free state, while Pakistan-backed militant groups in Kashmir want its merger with Muslim-majority Pakistan.

In the past seven weeks, at least 27 people have died in violent incidents. This has been the biggest since the 2008 anti-India protests, as young people pelted stones at police and security forces who retaliated with firing that led to most of the deaths.

A mix of factors linked to the impact of decades of conflict on Kashmiri society has led to the recent upsurge of violence, different analysts say. They point to poor governance by the Kashmir government on human rights issues, the security mindset of the central government, restlessness among the youth and economic woes, apart from the militancy itself.

“The army was here in the 1990s when people had guns in their hands. Now 20 years on, you are sending the army to deal with people with stones,” Mehbooba Mufti, leader of Kashmir’s main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and a former member of the Indian Parliament, said in slamming the Kashmir government.

The current spate of protests by Kashmiri youth has been simmering since June, although stone pelting and street rallies against security forces have been the more common form of protests, instead of outright violence, over the past two years.

In one incident, two local women were found dead off a stream, and this triggered suspicion among already restive residents that they had been raped and killed.

“In one of the best investigations by the federal investigating agency CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation), it was proven that the death of two sisters-in-law in Shopian district was actually a case of drowning and not rape and murder as alleged,” Ahmed Ali Fayyaz, a senior journalist in Kashmir, said. But, he argues, the Kashmir government was “low in confidence” in explaining this, leading to a situation of “chaos” during the protests.

“You need to own that there was a mistake (in governance) and that the people have a right to be angry (given the Kashmir situation),” Mufti explained. “You are demonising the whole thing by calling in the army. You are alienating the people, this is not helping anyone.” “Under the fig leaf of political failure, you are putting Kashmir under curfew,” argued Sajjad Lone, the chairman of the People’s Conference who turned from being a pro-separatist politician to taking part in the Indian electoral process.

But Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah says the decision to bring in the army was necessary. “It was taken after lots of introspection,” he said on television. “The mood of the people was very raw. No political reaching worked.”

Fayyaz says that by calling in the army, the state government lost an opportunity to address the street protests without escalating tensions. After all, “the human rights issue on which the violence is blamed had in fact gone down of late,” he said.

Amitabh Mattoo, a Kashmir expert and professor of international politics at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, says the restiveness spilling over is a result of instability that has left many Kashmiri youngsters uncertain about their future.

For instance, a survey by Robert Bradnock of the London-based think tank Chatham House, released in May, shows that 87 percent of Kashmiris on the Indian side have serious concerns about unemployment.

The Indian government has long suspected Pakistan, which controls the other half of Kashmir, of fomenting trouble in Kashmir since the accession of the erstwhile princely state to India in 1947. For its part, Pakistan says it simply lends moral support to the aspirations of Kashmiris wanting to break free from India.

“Internally, it is possible for New Delhi to reach out to the Kashmiri people,” Mattoo said in a recent television debate. “(But)New Delhi must show the imagination and creativity to start a new chapter.”

Growing frustration over governance issues is a security concern indeed, says B Raman, director of Chennai-based Institute for Topical Studies and former chief of India’s spy agency, Research and Analysis Wing.

Clearly, he says, the latest round of anger has been fuelled by Kashmiris’ pent-up feelings on unresolved human rights violations under the security regime. “The elements in Pakistan only used the opportunity to foment trouble,” he said.

Another Chatham House survey says that on average, 44 percent of people in Pakistani-administered Kashmir favour independence, compared with 43 percent in Indian-administered Kashmir.

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