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Can Kashmir move forward after pivotal elections nod to Hindus and Muslims? (+video)

Part 1: Kashmir at a crossroads. Will the valley inch closer to India? 

Part 2: Kashmiris can't forget their freedom struggle with India, but want a better life. 

The Kashmir valley and its chief city of Srinagar are nestled beneath the snowy Himalayan mountains and have been written about and praised by travelers, naturalists, and poets for centuries.

At mid-century, the valley was considered so genteel and such an example of multi-ethnic and multi-religious harmony, that Mahatma Gandhi called it the hope of India. Yet when the British quit their colonial rule, the princely ruler of Kashmir schemed to have Kashmir – 70 percent Muslim and 20 percent Hindu – occupied by India, greatly angering Pakistan, which has since claimed the valley was stolen.

Kashmir is supposed to operate with great autonomy. But as Syed Nazakat writes below, local anger at Indian-run elections in 1988 brought a militant insurgency that continues to this day and has resulted in a lost generation. Some 300,000 to 500,000 Indian troops are still deployed in the valley and are deeply resented by the now-97 percent Muslim population. 

New Delhi's approach to Kashmir was once described to the Monitor by a Western diplomat as "the stain on the dinner jacket of India."

Now, with what appear to be pivotal elections in Kashmir announced on Dec. 23, the dynamics may change. The ruling nationalist Hindu BJP party won the vote in Jammu and a local Muslim party won in the Kashmir valley. 

In the second piece below, Fahad Shah describes how most Kashmiris are not ready to abandon their years of struggle for greater freedoms, and for an end to the often brutal impunity that the Indian Army operates with. Yet he says that Kashmiris also want a better life and less isolation.

The question is whether the Hindu and the Muslim parties can find a way forward together. 

Kashmir at a crossroads. Will the valley inch closer to India?

The Kashmir conflict has dragged on so long that it has consumed an entire generation and brought two nuclear powers – India and Pakistan – to the brink of war. Frustration and anger have become all too normal in a place that Mahatma Gandhi once called the hope of India.

Now after two decades of violence and more than 50,000 deaths, Kashmir is at a political and strategic crossroads. Amid an elusive peace and almost daily gun-battles, people are now flocking to the polls despite pressure by militants to boycott local elections whose results will be announced Tuesday.

A change of government is all but certain, and it will come amid changes of attitude in the Kashmir valley where many people are considering whether they have any real choice but to reconcile with India.  

What remains unclear is who will form the new government and under what terms – and whether the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party in New Delhi will make decisive inroads.

For Indians, the elections play as a great show of democracy. Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu BJP party is keen to seek gains in a place where it has never been a serious player. Mr. Modi, who swept to power in the general Indian elections in May, is running a lavish campaign and traveled to Srinigar to speak and hold out a promise of peace and jobs. He has for the first time questioned the behavior of the Indian Army – which many foreign journalists over the years have described as a virtual occupation, with more than 300,000 troops in a valley that is 97 percent Muslim.

“I have come to give you justice,” Modi told audiences during rallies.

Modi may know that the nationalist BJP is far from popular in Kashmir. But he is making a bold attempt to bring Kashmir closer to the Indian political mainstream by presenting the valley as key to his vision of a strong India.

Yet despite a huge campaign, Modi may come up short. He needs 44 seats to form a government in the 87 member Jammu and Kashmir Assembly. But he may only get half that. Meanwhile, the BJP efforts now appear to be quite polarizing in the political climate.

Role of elections in conflict

Kashmir – which Pakistan claims was stolen by India as the British departed – also remains at the heart of the dispute on the subcontinent. Pakistani officials say the current Kashmir elections are a farce and reiterate that Kashmiris should be able to choose between India and Pakistan.

That dynamic is another reason Kashmir remains at a crossroads. Kashmiris have no love left for Pakistan. But they don’t like India either. To most Kashmiris, India is still a foreign country. So strong was their nationalism at the time of India's independence in 1947 that a special amendment exists in the Indian Constitution to protect Kashmiri rights, including the right to have their own constitution and to fly a Kashmiri flag in place of an Indian one. 

So the crossroads at the 2014 election is really whether Kashmiri parties expected to win will join with the pro-India ruling party under the incentive of money – or whether Kashmir will remain in the status quo. 

Ironically, analysts point out, it was state elections in Kashmir in 1988 that originally sparked the long running conflict. Kashmiris felt the election was rigged by New Delhi and said India was crushing dissent. A bomb went off. Soon a full-blown armed rebellion broke out against India. A freedom and independence movement rose up that began to turn the valley into a place of insurrection.

Today, on the eve of election announcements, the security roadblocks that used to choke Srinagar roads have been cleared. But the presence of the Indian troops is still overwhelming. The region remains tense and highly militarized, even though there are not many more than 300 armed separatists active in Kashmir, which is the Indian government’s own estimate.

Yet India is reluctant to withdraw a controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which allows Indian forces to arrest anyone without a warrant and to enter and search houses and businesses at any time. For over two decades the law has given immunity to Indian soldiers who kill or beat up civilians. The local chief minister, Omar Abdullah, has appealed for the lifting of the Act. The Indian Army, however, is adamantly opposed to this.

Many Kashmiris say they will vote for local, deliverable issues like sanitation, health, water and power. One popular local party likely to win a fair share of votes is the People's Democratic Party, or PDP. The PDP may well be a player in forming a new government. Its leader, Mehbooba Mufti, has been campaigning on a platform of "change," whose reading is open to interpret in many directions -- including a pragmatic link-up with BJP.

"People are participating in this election to write a new script in the state's political history and the trend shows that they are enthusiastically voting for change,” Mufti Sayeed said at a Dec. 15 rally. “Politics based on regionalism, communalism, and division has to end. Our party will be a bridge to realize this objective. We need your support and vote to ensure that Jammu and Kashmir emerges as an island of peace and prosperity."

-- Syed Nazakat 

Kashmir elections: Locals can't forget struggle with India, but want a better life

It came as something of a surprise when Prime Minister Modi's government last month quickly ordered an inquiry into the deaths of two young men after 128 Army rounds were shot into their car outside Srinigar weeks before. An Army court then found nine Indian soldiers responsible.

For the first time, India appears to be addressing its human rights record in Kashmir. November also brought the first-ever guilty verdicts for Indian soldiers. Five soldiers were found guilty of killing three men in northern Kashmir in 2010, murders that caused mass public protests in Kashmir at the time that led to the deaths of 120 more people at the hands of Indian soldiers.

The new Indian Army attitude also coincides with the first effort by the Hindu nationalist BJP party to actually vie for and win elections in Jammu and Kashmir – the vote has taken place over several weeks and ends Dec. 23 -- and so Kashmiris are viewing the sudden new attitude for swift justice by New Delhi in the valley mainly in a political framework.  

At an election rally Dec. 8 in Srinagar, Mr. Modi pointed out that the Army verdict was the first time in 30 years the India had admitted to such a mistake. “This is a wonder of the Modi government,” he told well-searched members of an audience in a downtown cricket stadium. “This is the proof of my good intentions before you.”

A key question is whether Kashmiris will abandon years of struggle and sacrifice for their cause in order to achieve better conditions within India.

Along with a toll of 70,000 killed over the years, another 8,000 Kashmiris have been “disappeared” according to the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons here, a mostly female group led by a housewife, Parveena Ahangar, whose 17-year old son was picked up by Indian forces in 1991 and hasn't been heard from since.

Many families in the valley like Ms. Ahangar’s are not forgetting years of torture, rape and bullying, but at the same time voters here hope that elections will help to bring an outcome that will restore Kashmir’s poor economic situation and lack of development. 

Ordinary voters ahead of elections often tell reporters they will vote for the political candidates and platforms that have the best programs for local issues like improved electricity, water, and opportunity – while not forgetting the past.

One prominent activist, Khurran Parvez of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, says the two recent decisions by the Army courts are pre-election tactics by Modi. The Coalition recently named more than 500 Indian soldiers it accuses of unexamined human rights violations in a report titled “Alleged Perpetrators.”

“It is too early to say those soldiers [put under the law] will be punished for their crimes,” Mr. Parvez points out, noting also that the nine soldiers accused of gross violations can still be pardoned by the Indian Army commander stationed in the valley. “If India prosecutes its forces, I don’t think soldiers will think of killing anyone again,” he says, but adds that such prosecutions are also likely to dampen Army morale and recruiting. Over the years, Indian security forces in the valley are estimated to have shifted between 250,000 up to 500,000. 

On Dec. 2 at the village of Kunan-Poshpora, a cluster of houses on a paved road, the local school became a polling station. Outside is a group of women party to what is a yet unresolved mass rape case dating to the 1990s where Indian forces are accused. A number of rape survivors wave black flags at voters and one, Saja Begum, who retains a visible scar from the event, says some local women won’t vote. “Our village has not boycotted [the election] but 40 of us will not vote.” 

-- Fahad Shah

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