Conflict Over Kashmir Ignores Kashmiris

India's recent retreat from the Hazratbal mosque may be less than meets the eye; India and Pakistan still treat Kashmir as a property dispute.

THE Hazratbal mosque is one of the holiest in Kashmir. Revered as home to a hair of the prophet Muhammad, it is a 20-minute drive from the heart of Srinagar, the capital of the Indian-controlled state.

This month, India announced with some fanfare that its security forces would leave the mosque, ending a 10-month occupation. Last autumn, the mosque was the site of a month-long siege involving Kashmiri militants and the Indian Army. Since then, soldiers have guarded the site. In a region where mosques are always open, the image and reality presented by barbed wire and soldiers have galled Kashmiris.

The retreat from Hazratbal may seem positive, but the context of this action suggests otherwise. More ominous, the Indian government also has extended the state of emergency that has paralyzed the Kashmir Valley for almost five years. Together, these two decisions bode poorly for resolving the conflict in Kashmir.

Since the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, Kashmiri discontent has focused on political representation and territorial control. Neither country wants to cede an inch of this strategically sensitive land to the other. For decades, Kashmiris have lived divided lives, separated by a Line of Control that divides land controlled by India and Pakistan. Patrolled by the United Nations - under the watchful eyes of local military troops, who habitually restrict access on the Indian side - the Line of Control is like an impermeable international border, but without the right of local residents to traverse it.

Public opinion in India and Pakistan seems unmoving: Pakistanis insist that Kashmiris have been denied the right to self-determination and suggest that the state belongs with them; Indians insist that Kashmir is fundamental to their federation. Missing from public view in this debate are the Kashmiri people. Local populations, like the militants who are their most visible symbol, represent a wide spectrum of opinion, ranging from those who want to accede to Pakistan to those who want to restructure a relationship with India to those who seek independence. But few in New Delhi or Islamabad want to hear Kashmiri opinions.

Since 1989, insurgents have fought the Indian government, and with time, the conflict has grown in size and seriousness. Militants - probably numbering no more than 50,000, according to Indian government sources - wage war against an increasing number of Indian forces, perhaps 500,000, possibly many more, with others waiting in the wings. If this 10-to-1 ratio seems overwhelming, the ratio of soldiers to civilians is not much better. There are probably no more than 3.5 million people in the Srinagar Valley. Estimated conservatively by using incomplete police and hospital records, at least 15,000 civilians have been killed; the true number is probably twice that, and far more have been critically injured by fire, rifles, and mines.

The nature of the conflict has changed since 1989. Not only have human rights abuses increased, but Kashmiri insurgents have been joined by mercenaries - some of them veterans of the Afghanistan war - and have received money and weapons from Pakistan and other Islamic states. As a result, corruption has entered the war; political allegiance is determined by cash as well as ideology.

THE confusing multiplicity of alliances, however, should not be mistaken for confusion among insurgents. Militants know one another - their strengths and weaknesses, differences, and above all, commonalities.

Kashmir is now an armed camp. Masked, helmeted soldiers patrol every street, their cocked rifles emblems of distasteful authority. Each act of defiance against the Indian state is met with more repression. A war about political sovereignty is also a battle for individual dignity.

To the Indian government, the conflict has the color of holy war, with New Delhi standing for secularism and insurgents backed by Pakistan holding the standard of Islam. The uncompromising rhetoric of Pakistan's Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto provides ammunition for this point of view. Indian Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao's political opponents in the Bharatiya Janata Party, who themselves occasionally seek sectarian whipping boys, won't let him forget this characterization. In return, Rao's appointed governor in Kashmir accuses the BJP of fomenting communal strife. Holy war in the hills is joined by another in the corridors of state and the halls of parliament.

The retreat from Hazratbal may therefore offer less than meets the eye. Leaving the mosque does not signal the success of pacification; instead, it returns the situation in a militantly anti-Indian neighborhood to an earlier status quo. Meanwhile, military escalation in neighboring Doda district threatens to overtake past brutality. Unlike the Srinagar Valley, Doda is situated on terrain more hospitable to guerilla war and is home to a population more evenly balanced among Hindus and Muslims. Indian forces fear losses in Doda; New Delhi fears vicious sectarian violence that could overshadow its efforts to reinforce secularist policies in the rest of India. In Doda, the Army, rather than civilians, might sustain injury; more Hindus might be killed, rather than a preponderance of Muslims. If the retreat from the mosque appears to be an Indian peace offering to Muslims in Srinagar, the heightening war in Doda is like a slap to their face.

Extending the state of emergency makes a political solution remote. The last five years have been silent madness. Emergency means that courts barely function and attorneys spend all their time filing habeas corpus petitions to which judges rarely respond. Torture substitutes for imprisonment and killing substitutes for torture. A generation of young Kashmiri men is disappearing, shot point-blank under suspicion of militant sympathies. In the name of internal security, women have been raped, houses and shops burned, villages pillaged. That both sides commit rights violations doesn't even a score unbalanced by the extraordinary abuses committed by security forces.

By extending the emergency in the name of retaining New Delhi's version of federation and countering its sense of Islamabad's intentions, India is destroying hope in Kashmir. Pakistani support for militants provides cash, weapons, and safe passage to the part of the state under its jurisdiction. It is also a catalyst for Indian repression. Kashmiris are caught in a property dispute in which they are sadly and profoundly ignored.

The paradox of emergency rule is that its means contradict its aim - to restore an Indian-controlled political process. The longer the emergency, the more likely that resentment will grow, that insurgency will break out more violently elsewhere in Kashmir, and that Pakistan will increase its support to militants, hoping to win hearts, minds, and, should the opportunity ever arise, votes. Even if India wins this battle - even if it regains enough superficial control to reintroduce its political process in Kashmir - the war may well have been lost. Kashmiris, understandably, have long memories, and the last five years have reinforced political alienation beyond imagination.

Pakistan believes that time is on its side - that keeping Indian troops occupied at tremendous cost weakens India beyond repair. India believes that time is on its side - that it can wear down the insurgency and reimpose its rule. Perhaps only the Kashmiris see things clearly, for they believe that time has passed them by.

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