Amid din, Kashmiri voice lost

Heavy mortar shelling continued yesterday as India and Pakistan continued war rhetoric.

A black funeral shroud hangs lightly over the grave of Abdul Ghani Lone, the slain separatist leader who has turned into a cult hero here.

Mr. Lone was a moderate member of the 23-party Kashmiri Muslim separatist alliance, The All Party Hurriyet Conference (APHC). But his assassination on May 21 has elevated him, like many others, to a martyr's status.

Some here believe he was killed because he criticized jihadi terrorist groups in Kashmir. Ironically, he now lies buried among those who would have wanted him dead. Spiritual leaders, moderate separatists, die-hard pro-Pakistan separatists, and militants from groups like Harkat-ul-Ansar and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen are all buried here. The "Kashmir cause," it seems, attains unification in death.

But those still alive and championing it are as different as chalk from cheese. There are those who want autonomy within the framework of a genuinely federal Indian Union; while others promote the cause of azadi, or independence. Still others want to be united with Pakistan or India.

A simmering political angst nurtures Kashmiri Muslims' alienation from India. The distance between New Delhi and Srinagar has grown over the past five months, and Kashmiris say they feel that they are pawns in the India–Pakistan hostility.

"We want peace," says a Kashmiri youth sitting on the steps leading to the graveyard. "Nobody wants war, deaths, and violence. The only way out is for India, Pakistan, and Kashmiris to look for a permanent solution."

The mood on the street is a mix of suspicion, distrust, and anger at the political situation.

During the last 13 years, Kashmiris say, they have learned to be cynically dismissive of New Delhi while harboring a deep distrust toward the Indian security forces, who they say have consistently harassed them.

India officially admits that 33,000 have died in the Kashmir conflict, while Kashmiris claim it's twice that number. A number of human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Commission of India, report widespread violations by Indian security forces, including hundreds of custodial deaths and the rape of young girls and women.

The human-rights violations by Indian forces have hardened the anti-India sentiment in the Kashmir valley.

"Resolving the Kashmir tragedy cannot just mean that New Delhi transfers power to the state of Jammu and Kashmir," says a prominent pro-autonomy leader, Mehbooba Mufti. Ms. Mufti, president of People's Democratic Party, says New Delhi will have to leave the political process to the will of the people here. "New Delhi cannot dictate terms in Jammu and Kashmir. It will have to give the people the democratic right to vote in a free and fair elections."

The common refrain in the Kashmir valley is that the Indian government will never organize "free and fair" elections. They point to the 1987 elections here – widely seen to be rigged for the National Conference Party – which were generally believed to have sparked a violent rebellion against Indian rule.

This confidence, however, is not shared by a majority of Kashmiri Muslims, who call for holding elections under the watchful eyes of independent monitors.

The mood here flies in the face of a recent opinion poll commissioned by the Kashmir Friends Society, which is active in nongovernmental conflict resolution initiatives in Kashmir. The results showed that 61 percent of Kashmiris (in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir) want to remain with India. The Muslims in the Kashmir valley have rejected the results of the opinion poll as "contrived," while others questioned the methodology used.

Regardless of the poll's findings, many in Kashmir demand that New Delhi has the right to tackle the problem of terrorism in Indian Kashmir, but they say it's unacceptable that Kashmiri Muslims continue to be threatened by the Indian security forces.

"We look at the Kashmir problem in two dimensions – external and internal," says Mufti. "The external dimension that relates to Pakistan's support to cross-border terrorism in Kashmir and India is something that has actively engaged New Delhi. But what is more important is the internal dimension of the Kashmir tragedy. How can New Delhi ignore the trauma, pain, and suffering of the Kashmiri people? How can the daily killings, custodial deaths, and rapes be ignored?"

Social workers in Indian Kashmir say New Delhi's first priority should be helping Kashmiri people. "The human tragedy in Kashmir is often forgotten by New Delhi," says Zahoor Ahmed Tak, chairman of an orphanage. Mr. Tak says the Jammu and Kashmir state government's own estimates reveal that there are more than 100,000 orphans here.

"Violence in Kashmir has ripped apart the Kashmiri society – crime rates have gone up, cases of post-traumatic stress syndrome have shot up dramatically, drug addiction is on the rise, the suicide graph is increasing every year, and family life has been disrupted," says Bashir Dabla, a leading sociologist at Kashmir University.

It is, therefore, not surprising that many here have challenged the Indian government to hold a referendum or plebiscite. The 1948 United Nations Security Council resolution called on India to hold a plebiscite in the region. It also required Pakistan withdraw its troops from the area of Kashmir it controlled, which it has not done.

The ruling National Conference, headed by Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister, Farooq Abdullah, has rejected this contention. He says the separatists (grouped under the umbrella organization APHC) should give up their ideal goal of a separate Kashmir and instead run for office under the current Indian Constitution.

"Let [the separatists] prove their representative character in the elections," says Omar Abdullah, India's Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister.

Mr. Abdullah admits that some sections of the Kashmiri society are disillusioned with various processes of governance and democracy and it is the responsibility of the political parties and the state government to reverse this.

Mufti says that the conflict in Kashmir has mostly affected the Muslims in the Kashmir Valley.

"It is understandable that the Kashmiri Hindus and Sikhs in Jammu and the Kashmiri Buddhists in Ladakh would want to remain part of India," says Mufti, whose party stands for an autonomous status for Indian administered Kashmir.

"But the fear psychosis in the valley is tremendous because the Kashmiri Muslims have been the worst affected by militancy and counter-militancy operations," she says.

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