Kashmir’s long road ahead

January 2, 2009

After India last held state elections in Jammu and Kashmir in 2002, the Kashmir Valley witnessed a period of relative peace only to see it shattered when plans to give land to Hindu pilgrims triggered the biggest protests since the Kashmir separatist revolt erupted in 1989.

The latest elections – which produced a turnout of more than 60 percent despite a boycott call by separatists and ushered in a new state government led by Omar Abdullah – have provided a second chance to change the mood in the volatile Kashmir Valley. But do India and Pakistan, and the Kashmiris themselves, have the ability to turn this second chance into a real opportunity for peace?

Despite the outrage over the Mumbai attacks, blamed by India on Pakistan-based militants, there are some promising signs. The elections were remarkable for the fact that armed separatists based in Pakistani-held Kashmir made no attempt to disrupt the campaign, as they did during the previous polls in 2002. If Indian assertions are correct that the Pakistani security establishment controls the level of armed separatist activity in Kashmir, then the absence of violence would not have been possible without the active cooperation of Pakistan – a factor acknowledged by The Hindu in an editorial

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari has spoken repeatedly of the need to make peace with India, including over Kashmir (as discussed here, herehere and here) and despite widespread scepticism in India that his views are shared by the powerful Pakistan Army, Pakistan does seem to have delivered in keeping the militants at bay during the elections.

Meanwhile trade between the Indian and Pakistan-held parts of the divided former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir has continued even through the heights of the post-Mumbai tensions

And perhaps one of the more promising signs is that Indian newspaper columnists have been careful on the whole to avoid any hint of triumphalism in proclaiming the high turnout an endorsement of Indian rule, suggesting that New Delhi may have learned the lessons of last year’s land protests – that peace in Kashmir cannot be taken for granted.

Instead columnists stress the long road ahead in bringing any kind of normality to the state.  (The political parties which fought in the elections made a point of trying to delink Kashmir’s status from the polls, running their campaigns instead on issues of governance.)

In the Hindustan Times, columnist Prem Shankar Jha analyses the voting patterns across the state and concludes that behind the overall high turnout there were still strong pockets of resistance, particularly in the Kashmiri capital Srinagar. ”The voting pattern shows that ‘separatism’ has not died, but become more localised,” he writes. ”While the government has been congratulating itself in the jump in the turnout in Srinagar from barely 5 per cent in 2002 to 20 per cent this year, it has  chosen to forget that in a truly free and contested election, such as that of 1983, the turnout in the city was over 80 per cent,” he adds. ”The abstention is significant because except in China nearly every successful rebellion has begun in the cities and has been led by precisely the kind of people who remain alienated today.”

Writing in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar says the elections offer a new opportunity to hammer out a solution in Kashmir which is acceptable to India, Pakistan and Kashmir.  However, he adds that ”New Delhi would be deluding itself if it believes in the aftermath of the elections that it can arrive at a settlement without the separatists,” and urges both India and Pakistan to provide greater autonomy to the parts of the former kingdom under their control. “Without doubt, the Kashmiris want to have an identity of their own,” he says.

So what are the pitfalls ahead?

The Arab News highlights the risk of communal discord following a strong showing in the elections by the hardline Bharatiya janata Party (BJP) in Jammu, the Hindu-dominated part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.  Any increase in Hindu-Muslim tensions would provide fresh fuel to the militants, just as support for the armed separatist movement appeared to be waning, it said. “The lesson for India — and Pakistan — surely has to be that Kashmir is put into cold storage as an issue on which they are prepared to fight a war. The minute they commit themselves to that, the militants have lost their greatest weapon. ”

The Economist calls the elections “a good vote in the angry valley”  but warns that India should not be lulled into thinking that Kashmiris had been won over to Indian rule. ”Many Kashmiris, as the recent protests served to re-emphasise, are deeply unhappy to be in India,” it said.

That view is echoed by the BBC’s Andrew Whitehead, who also writes that the new government ushered in by the elections will find it hard to convince Kashmiris that their grievances can be addressed through local politics until relations between India and Pakistan are repaired following the Mumbai attacks

Kashmir has always been unpredictable, and remains a tinderbox vulnerable to any sparks coming from inside or outside the Valley. The Indian government’s long-awaited decision on whether to carry out the death sentence of Mohammad Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri convicted of involvement in an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, could be one of those sparks.  Many Kashmiris believe he was wrongly convicted.

And if anyone needs a reminder of the anger bubbling below the surface in India’s only Muslim-majority state, they need look no further than Friday’s protests against Israeli strikes on Gaza. At least 50 people were injured when police in Srinagar fired teargas to disperse protesters.

(Photos: National Conference leader Omar Abdullah waves to supporters/Fayaz Kabli

Kashmiris protest in Srinagar against Israeli strikes on Gaza/Fayaz Kabli)

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