Civilians entangled in Kashmir

The state government in Indian Kashmir criticizes the police for the April 3 killing of protesters.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As spring approaches and the snows melt on the Himalayan peaks, India and Pakistan are eyeball to eyeball over the Kashmir Valley.

Last May brought a small war in Kashmir between the two new nuclear powers. This year, after the visit of President Clinton to South Asia, and with US warnings over increased violence in the hotly disputed land, the two sides are gauging each other's intentions.

On the ground in Kashmir, however, tensions are already reaching the boiling point. Based on a series of events seemingly set off by the US president's visit itself, the crisis involves the Indian security forces as much as it does the Pakistani-based militants who cross the border.

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The spark was set off as Mr. Clinton arrived in India on March 20. At twilight on that day, 35 men in a Sikh village in south Kashmir were massacred by two dozen unidentified gunmen wearing tattered Indian Army uniforms and drinking whisky. On March 25 an Indian Army unit in the vicinity shot five men it says were some of the "foreign mercenaries" who killed the Sikhs. The plot thickens.

The next day, March 26, nearby villagers reported five missing men. They accused the Indian Army of killing them. The Army denied it. The villagers demanded to see the bodies of the five males. The Army says it burned and buried the bodies and cannot identify them. The villagers say they want the bodies exhumed and checked with DNA tests. The military balked. Then on April 3, with emotions rising, 5,000 angry locals march toward the main town of Anantnag, 34 miles south of Srinagar, the Indian state capital of Jammu and Kashmir, to protest. Fearing militants in the crowd, jittery Indian special police units opened fire, killing seven according to state officials - bringing tensions to new heights.

More eyes on Kashmir

During Clinton's trip to India, world attention focused on the 53-year Kashmiri dispute. In India, the Clinton visit was one of near euphoria, while it brought gloom in Pakistan. The US president sent a clear warning to Pakistani ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf to stop supporting the jihad, or holy war, by Islamic mujahideen who infiltrate Kashmir, and to respect the current "line of control" that operates as a border between the two sides. General Musharraf had hoped the president would convince India to negotiate on Kashmir.

Instead, the US position seemed to echo the long-held Indian one: That Kashmir is an internal matter and cannot be mediated by outside parties.

But violence between the Indian security forces and civilians in the Kashmir Valley in the past week show another side to the crisis: the uglier face of the Indian suppression of dissent in Kashmir, and the widespread discontent of what Kashmiri insurgents refer to as the "occupation" by the 700,000 strong Indian Army. In recent months India has taken further steps to crack down on a bolder strategy of attacks by militants - called a "zero tolerance" approach by New Delhi.

Kashmiris, for example, can be held for up to 18 months detention without trial. Indian officials practice interrogation and torture of civilians, according to human rights groups, and collective punishment of villagers. Some 500 Kashmiris have simply gone "missing" in the past half decade, according to official statistics. No militants have been put on trial for nearly a decade.

Yet, as experts point out, the Indian policy has not stopped the insurgency in the Kashmir Valley, a 95 percent Muslim region. The insurgency itself was not created by Pakistan, but by Kashmiris themselves in the late 1980s, when Indian officials rigged election results and installed a puppet administration, led by current chief minister of Kashmir, Farooq Abdullah, who is extremely unpopular in the valley.

"There are two sides to the Kashmir problem," says Praful Bidwai, a leading columnist and security expert in Delhi. "The first is Pakistan. The second and more important is misguided Indian domestic policy - which has led to the alienation of the Kashmir people, the brutal suppression of their rights, and popular discontent."

India launched on Jan. 17, for example, a new "proactive" strategy in the Valley. The Army is dividing Kashmir into two regions, introducing new counterinsurgency units that will conduct "offensive operations" designed to create "area domination" across a new grid of some 49 sectors with new arms. Last week, Indian military forces for the first time deployed helicopter gunships to patrol the borders and townships where insurgents are suspected to reside.

Resisting solution

In past decades, India has successfully put down local insurgency movements. In the 1980s and '90s, it quelled a Sikh revolt in the Punjab and a rise of separatists in its far-flung northeast states.

Yet Kashmir - which is both a local and a foreign-based insurgency - has resisted a solution.

Morale in the Army is very low, according to a recent Jane's Defence Weekly report, with an increasing number of troops deserting or suffering psychological breakdown. Instances of "fragging" - soldiers shooting their own colleagues - are on the rise as well. Mujahideen fighters from Pakistan, who have rather strictly targeted only military positions, have begun suicide missions against Army posts and patrols. In the past six months, some 1,700 Indian Army and security forces have been killed, according to estimates - causing Indian forces to frequently shoot first and ask questions later. For example, on the night of April 3 in north Kashmir, a mentally handicapped boy unknowingly entered a security zone, did not move quickly enough when told to do so, and was shot.

This week, in what appears to be an effort to reduce tensions, Indian officials released from jail three leaders of the Kashmir independence movement, known as the All Parties Hurriyat Conference. But the plane carrying the men was turned back from the Srinagar airport following the shooting in Anantnag.

Also, Indian officials have agreed to allow a committee to investigate the mystery of the five missing men in the days following the March 20 massacre, including an exhumation.

Meanwhile, no one really knows who killed the 35 Sikhs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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