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Kashmiris, forgotten in conflict

Fighting winds down, but Kashmir's 700-year tradition of tolerant society remains a casualty

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 13, 1999



SRINAGAR, INDIA

Nine weeks of a war between India and Pakistan over the mountain valley of Kashmir has embittered relations, preoccupied 1.5 billion South Asians, and pushed the two new nuclear states into a military mindset neither can afford.

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Now it appears the conflict will end by a July 16 deadline negotiated by the two countries. Pakistan-backed mujahideen fighters will withdraw behind the "line of control" that operates as a disputed border in Kashmir. Indian jets have ceased their airstrikes on mountain bunkers and caves. Attention is shifting to the troubles of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who, having pledged since a July 4 meeting with President Clinton to call off the fighters, is caught in a vise between his military, the mujahideen, and international pressure.

Yet in this capital city of lakes, floating gardens, and abundant birdlife - a tragedy on a very different scale is under way, itself a long-term consequence of five decades of struggle for custody of Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

For Kashmiris, the tragedy is nothing less than the destruction and cultural eradication of a distinct 700-year-old identity based on multireligious tolerance and just plain friendliness.

So legendary was the Kashmiri spirit of amity and nonviolence, in fact, that when Mohandas Gandhi despaired about Hindu-Muslim relations in pre-partition India in the 1930s, he said, "If I see a ray of hope, it is only from Kashmir."

Yet like some epic custody battle between two selfish and unyielding parents, little concern has been paid by Pakistan and India to the stability and integrity of the Kashmiri "child," residents and experts here say. Pakistan tacitly backs a foreign-based insurgency; India keeps 450,000 troops in Kashmir.

Today, rooftops are being rebuilt on a row of burned-out houses in the swanky Hindu part of old town Srinagar. This neighborhood was torched in 1992 during a Muslim insurgency that drove 250,000 Hindus out of Kashmir, about 98 percent of them.

But the new sound of pounding hammers does not tell a sweet story of return and renewal. The Hindus, a crucial part of this paradisiacal Himalayan valley for 700 years, are not coming back. At least not now.

Moderate Kashmiris say what has been destroyed is something called "kashmiriat" - an invisible but palpable understanding that Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and others would live together peaceably. The bedrock of this kashmiriat identity was a Sufi Islam that dates back centuries, and that stressed a need for gentleness and the treatment of other human beings in a dignified and equal manner.

But Sufism, nonviolence, secularism, and the broad-minded ideals of kashmiriat have been erased in Kashmir. Insurgency, occupation, and a new and harder-edged Islamic proselytizing has done more than drive away Hindus and bring massacres and grief. It has ended an invisible structure of trust, solidarity, friendliness, and faith in reason rather than force.

Caught in the middle

Young Kashmiris now have a choice between a vague Muslim utopia articulated by Pakistan-leaning politicians - or de facto second- or third-class status under occupation by Indian security forces. The irony, say longtime Kashmiris, is that their valley has never been allied or aligned with either India or Pakistan.

"For now, the old natural civil society in Kashmir is nonexistent," says Amitabh Mattoo, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi who grew up in Kashmir, and still vacations there. "The real tragedy is that the music, dance, literary tradition, the rich syncretic culture of Kashmir, have been destroyed or forgotten."

Not that human tragedy has ended. In just the last two weeks three massacres of Hindus and Muslims - some 42 people, including women and children - have taken place in Kashmir.

Last year, after India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons, Kashmir was seen as the most likely flashpoint for an atomic confrontation. Kashmir has been a contested land between the two countries since 1947 - when a Hindu ruler decided to give Muslim-majority Kashmir, an independent "princely state" under British rule, to India.

This year, Pakistani-based rebels crossed the disputed border in northern Kashmir, seemingly a world away from Srinagar - largely with the idea of creating international pressure to force India to negotiate some new political arrangement for Kashmir.