The widening gap on Kashmir

India's recent release of local political leaders raised hopes for talks, which have yet to materialize.

Shouting "We want freedom!" thousands of Kashmiri Muslims took to Srinagar's streets on May 21.

They danced past bunkers filled with Indian security forces, waved from windows, and laughed as the object of their attention, a 28-year-old religious figure, Umer Farooq, rode by on top of a truck.

The event marked the anniversary of the assassination of Mr. Farooq's much-beloved father, the former mirwaiz, or spiritual leader. It was a jubilant, defiant, and illegal political act later featuring speeches by a host of unelected leaders who outlined popular demand: talks on self-rule or independence of Kashmir.

In India's capital, the rally didn't make much of a splash. But in the Kashmir valley, a world apart from India proper, it signaled the start of a summer of rising expectations and enduring frustrations.

Expectations - because in the weeks leading up to the procession, Indian officials had released from jail several of the May 21 speakers - leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference.

And frustrations - because Kashmir remains in a tense uprising with 1 Indian soldier here for every 10 people, crammed in a picturesque valley of lakes and mountains.

Kashmir is the central problem of a region that two years ago revealed its nuclear capabilities. Most experts feel that any eventual peace between India and Pakistan must include a new deal for Kashmir.

Yet despite the release of Hurriyat leaders and the dangled promise of possible talks, New Delhi now seems to be cracking down in the valley, while letting the idea of diplomacy or negotiations drift.

Hurriyat leaders, a group of 24 disparate and often divided men who represent popular sentiments in the valley, began to be released from jail shortly after President Clinton concluded his South Asia visit in March. Kashmiris took the releases to be a sign that Delhi was ready to talk about their future.

But with the escalating war just off the coast in Sri Lanka, and much of Delhi officialdom away during the early summer heat, no such moves have been evident. All sides seem to be in a waiting game.

Experts say India is waiting to see if Pakistan will escalate its cross-border militancy in Kashmir - a step that could further isolate that country in the court of world opinion.

Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's chief executive, last week offered talks with India, which has been met so far with silence from New Delhi.

Meanwhile, violence continues. Last weekend witnessed the first attack on the tiny Shiite minority - when a bomb exploded at a Shiite religious event, killing 12 and injuring Moulvi Iftikhar Hussain Ansari, an influential Shiite leader. Militants and security forces take casualties daily.

"What is ignored are the ground realities of this place," says Farooq, the new mirwaiz, who is one of a new generation of Kashmiri leaders willing to negotiate with India over Kashmir. "The government of India can ignore Kashmir or say they are managing the problem. But the fact is that the gap between the people of Kashmir and the government in New Delhi is widening, day by day."

"If the government of India was sincere, they could reassure the people here by taking confidence building steps," Farooq continued in an interview, shortly before he was put under house arrest. "We read about talks in the newspapers. But there has been no official or unofficial communications about them to us."

Yet in the view of New Delhi, the popular leaders of Kashmir are not yet capable of conducting talks. "We will talk, no problem. We are always ready, and we say that sincerely," says a senior adviser to Home Minister L.K. Advani. "But it seems to us that the Hurriyat leaders need to sort out where they stand. They do not have a clear position, past their slogans, and they want to start with unreasonable demands."

When President Clinton came to South Asia, expectations in the valley were raised to new - and perhaps unreasonable - heights. Ordinary Kashmiris thought the US president would focus on "solving Kashmir," to use the local vernacular.

Instead, Mr. Clinton publicly criticized the Pakistani government for supporting cross-border violence. Since that initial disappointment, however, Kashmiris have convinced themselves that the government of India is being pressured privately by Western powers. Indeed, there is a consensus among a segment of Indian and Western officials that the crisis is untenable on a permanent basis, and that this message is being debated in high circles in Delhi.

It is hard to imagine, says one diplomat, that India could secure a much desired seat on the United Nations Security Council without some resolution of Kashmir. "Kashmir is still something like the stain on the dinner jacket of India," says a senior Washington offical.

Opposition leaders in Delhi over the weekend used the recent bombing of Shiites in Kashmir to make the point that Delhi's policy is "vitiating the hopes and aspirations of the [Kashmiri] people," as Congress Party spokesman Rajesh Pilot stated.

Even the hardline Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), one of the most influential organizations in India, has suggested that the region of Jammu and Kashmir be "trifurcated." The RSS, the parent Hindu organization of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has suggested separating Buddhist Ladakh and Hindu Jammu, to the east and south, from the Muslim Kashmir valley.

However, it is highly unpopular in some liberal Delhi circles, partly because it abandons the multi-ethic ideals of Kashmir, which embrace Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, Sikh, and Muslim traditions.

Events surrounding Kashmir have been at the heart of the most prominent recent events in South Asia. One year ago this month, India and Pakistan were in an escalating and bitter series of battles in the northern mountains of Kashmir, known as the Kargil war.

Partly on the strength of emotions unleashed by the fight, the Hindu nationalist BJP government was reelected in September. Then in October, Pakistan underwent a popular military coup that ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and installed General Musharraf - who promptly made the dispute over Kashmir the chief plank of his foreign and domestic policy. On the day Clinton arrived in India in March, 35 Sikhs were butchered in a Kashmir village.

Whether Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee will take a step toward talks this summer is unclear. Mr. Vajpayee, along with many members of his party, still feel betrayed by Pakistan, after initiating a historic round of rapprochement with Islamabad in February of 1998 - the so called "bus diplomacy" in Lahore, which was dashed by the Pakistan-sponsored Kargil war last spring.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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