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'Confidence' measures falter in Kashmir

Tourism and cross-border buses have stalled. India has some 600,000 forces in Indian-administered Kashmir.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 25, 2006


With the memory of the July 11 Mumbai (Bombay) bomb blasts still fresh, it's surprising to recall that just a few months ago, citizens of India and Pakistan were celebrating the first anniversary of a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, two Kashmiri cities on opposite sides of a cease-fire line.

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The measure was intended as a "confidence-building measure," a sign that the two nuclear rivals were finally ready for peace. Today, it's clear that even those good times weren't so good.

Only 600 Kashmiris from both side of the cease-fire line have been allowed to take the bus since April 7, 2005. The application process is arduous – with separate requests required at a half-dozen Indian agencies. Those who get approved on the Indian side then must begin the process again, with an equal number of agencies in Pakistan.

"Peace process? There is no sign of a peace process as far as Kashmir is concerned," says Syed Ali Shah Geelani, leader of a hard-line separatist group called Tehreek-i Hurriyat in Srinagar. "How will this bus service help us? They [the Indians] are not giving us relief, and that can only come from the permanent resolution of this dispute."

In the absence of real negotiations over the future of Kashmir, India has continued a massive military presence in this Himalayan valley that has known 17 years of war. Separatists and apolitical Kashmiris alike say the Indian security forces have lost any popular goodwill as they act like occupiers – razing homes in villages, often with faulty information, and arresting young men, who sometimes never return.

"The way the security forces move about, it's always in a mood of cracking down," says Sheikh Showkat Hussein, a law professor at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar. "This is the time of the news channels in India, so whatever you try to project as a success, you can do. But for ordinary people there has been no change."

Police justify their hard techniques, noting that Kashmiri militant groups have changed their tactics, mounting deadly grenade attacks against tourists for the first time in a bid to create a sense of panic. On Saturday, India captured Mudassir Gojri, a top Kashmiri militant commander blamed for dozens of recent tourist killings.

"He is the organizer and the kingpin of the Lashkar-i Tayyaba in the [Kashmir] valley," said Gopal Sharma, the director-general of police in Jammu-Kashmir.

At least 65,000 civilian deaths

Since 1989, Indian forces – currently thought to number 600,000 Army and paramilitary – have been fighting a long counterinsurgency against dozens of separate militant groups, including Lashkar-i Tayyaba. Indian government estimates put the total number of insurgents at between 900 and 1,400.

It is a long war that has taken a massive toll on the Kashmiri people, with at least 65,000 deaths, most of them civilian. An additional 8,000 civilians have been listed as "disappeared," last seen in the custody of Indian security forces, according to the Srinagar-based Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons.