Valley's view of its mountain war

High altitude conflict is linked to the hopes for independence in the

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At midnight on the Prophet of Islam's birthday, residents in this state capital are out on the street and relaxed, despite a high-altitude war just east of here between India and Pakistan. Shops stay open all night, selling fresh cherries and candied fruit. From a Taj-shaped mosque, prayer calls echo across a limpid, moonlit lake and up into the Himalayan foothills.

For India and Pakistan, their 50-year-old dispute over Kashmir's border and the war for the hearts and minds of the 98 percent Muslim population here are intimately linked.

At the grass-roots level, some hope the escalation of warfare in the mountains will give their struggle for independence from India a boost by attracting international attention. Kashmir is considered a potential flashpoint for a wider war between the two nuclear-armed nations.

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But after eight years of a debilitating armed freedom movement that brought 400,000 Indian troops to this contested land, most Kashmiris are taking the new weeks-old war in stride.

For now, they are enjoying a tenuous truce with the Indian Army, which some locals regard as an occupying force. For most, it is Pakistan, not India, they support in cricket matches and in Kargil, where the border war is taking place.

Only two years ago, the atmospherics in Srinagar were totally different. Tensions between the population and the olive-clad Indian troops ran high. Shops closed early, driving after 8 p.m. was unthinkable. At the Haziat Bal mosque, site of the recent birthday cheer, a 48-hour battle between mujahideen rebels and Indian police left 17 dead.

But just as things were beginning to thaw, in this town and in the snowy mountains that became the new battlefront, the war started - throwing expectations into a blur. An early casualty is the tourism that was coming back to Kashmir, which was taken as a sign that things might be returning to an approximation of normalcy.

Until the 1980 freedom movement insurgency, Kashmir was known to its 700,000 annual visitors for its epic scenery, trout fishing, grand trekking, and quaint houseboat hotels. But in the '90s, it plummeted from lists of desirable destinations, especially after the 1995 kidnapping of six Western hikers by Muslim extremists south of Srinagar.

But this year, from March to May, traffic in the hotel and restaurants picked up. Two flights a day now arrive from New Delhi. Most tourists come from India or via cheap tours from Korea and Taiwan. Ignoring travel warnings, some Westerners are trickling in to take advantage of what is being called "olive tourism," a willingness to wade through the uniformed soldiers or endure military checkpoints in exchange for a glimpse of the magnificent valley.

In fact, even before India launched airstrikes near Kargil last month to push infiltrators off the peaks that control the supply road to Srinagar, Kashmir had not quite returned to the bucolic bliss and genial social temper that led it to be called "happy valley."

MOST Kashmiris agree that they have simply adjusted to militarization of their culture. They began to accept as normal a kind of status quo state of emergency. It is true that the violence has died down from the early 1990s, when 147 different groups of separatists - some 20,000 under age 30 who came to be known as "the boys" - were shooting or being shot at.

"The movement has gone underground, and we have learned to survive and live some semblance of life," says Abdul Gani, of the Hurriyat Conference, a loose gathering of some 24 mainly former insurgency groups that is increasingly being looked to by Kashmiris as a political alternative. "The movement is not any longer being represented by loud-talking boys with AK-47s. It is now in the hearts of the people."

Yet neither has the violence ended. Every day in Srinagar, a police report details between five and seven deaths and acts of violence in the internecine warfare among a cast of militants, arms traders, informers, extortioners, and Indian police, Army, border, and counterinsurgency forces.

Most of the militants in Kashmir now, however, come from Pakistan - they are not local "boys." While these hardened militants, usually trained in Afghan-istan, were once welcomed among those desiring independence, increasingly they are viewed by locals as a bit Islamically imperious and often uninterested in the problems and needs of the people they are ostensibly helping to liberate.

Due in part to the lan felt by the Muslim guerrillas at having played a part in outsmarting the Indian Army on the heights above Kargil, major violent incidents have increased. Four villages where the militants often stay have been burned in standoffs with the Army. On June 28, militants took the fight to Srinagar, with the shooting of a member of a political party loyal to India.

Few Kashmiris are dispassionate about the battle above Kargil. Many are quite afraid that somehow the war will grow. At the same time, many are gleeful that, after years of monotonous cohabitation with Indian security forces, those forces have been challenged. They hope Kargil gives some kind of boost for their own desire for independence or for joining with Pakistan. And they want the United States to take their side.

"Everyone is afraid of a war but glad that Kargil started," says a young medical student outside the northern village of Bandipur. "If a war happens at once, we will be free. Our independence will have to be solved."

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