Violent protests in Kashmir threaten India-Pakistan peace process

Riots sparked by a controversial land-transfer deal have widened to become pro-independence rallies.

By , Correspondent

Escalating unrest in Indian-controlled Kashmir threatens to derail a peace process between India and Pakistan that has extended over more than four years.

Riots, sparked by a land-transfer dispute, have also cast a shadow over local elections planned for this fall that were seen as a possible turning point toward greater stability.

Reports differed on the number of casualties from the violence. Bloomberg put the death toll at 27, after police on Tuesday fired on and killed 11 protesters who had defied a curfew.

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The BBC explained that the current unrest began in May, when the state government in Indian Kashmir – also called Jammu and Kashmir State – decided to transfer some land to a Hindu trust that runs the Amarnath shrine, which is frequented by Hindu pilgrims. That deal sparked protests by the state's Muslim majority, which fears losing land rights.

Angry Hindu extremists blocked roads between the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley in the north and the Hindu-dominated area around Jammu City in the south. That led to mass protests this week by Muslims, who said the blockade was preventing their fruit farmers from getting their produce to markets in the south. Agence France-Presse quoted observers saying that the unrest reflected a failure to increase basic security and economic conditions for Kashmiris.

An editorial in the Indian daily newspaper The Hindu pointed out that the unrest had cast doubt on local elections planned for this fall in the Indian-controlled state.

The Pakistani daily Dawn published an editorial stating that the unrest was "threatening a wider conflagration" and has undone progress in revitalizing the region.

The unrest in Kashmir comes on the heels of bombings in Indian cities that had already heightened India-Pakistan tensions. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the July 26 bombings in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad killed 45. Those attacks came a day after bombings in Bangalore and in the wake of May bombings in Jaipur that killed 60.

Security analysts suspect that Pakistan and Bangladesh-based Islamic militant groups were behind those attacks. Indian officials routinely claim that such groups are backed by the Pakistani government, but Pakistan denies this.

Tensions between the two nations also escalated last month over a series of skirmishes along the India-Pakistan border in Kashmir. The repeated exchange of fire was seen by both sides as a violation of a five-year-old cease-fire and sparked a mutual blame game, reported Reuters.

Both India and Pakistan claim the entire state of Kashmir, but control only part of the territory. The two nuclear powers have repeatedly come to blows over the region, most recently between 2001 and 2003, when tensions nearly led to all-out war. A cease-fire in 2003 began a peace process that included talks and increased transport links across the so-called Line of Control separating Indian- and Pakistani-controlled areas of Kashmir. But analysts say New Delhi and Islamabad cling to irreconcilable claims that make a permanent solution of the territorial dispute unlikely anytime soon.

The International Crisis Group said in its latest report on Kashmir in 2006 that Muslim unrest within Indian-controlled Kashmir was fueled by frustration with the slow pace of the peace process and by the strong Indian security presence.

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