Is Kashmir the next E. Timor?

Pro-Pakistan militants are becoming bolder, hoping to provoke a

The plaintive appeal in a Sept. 26 Kashmir daily paper reads like so many in recent weeks: "Missing: Syed Kamal Hussain, age 17 ... Please inform" of whereabouts.

Most Kashmiris understand - another young man gone for "the training." Hundreds of Kashmiri youths in recent weeks have left without a word, crossing the nearby border into Pakistan, where they are taught how to carry out an insurrection back home.

Kashmir may have fallen out of the headlines after a battle between India and Pakistan ended in July. But here in the hamlets of this beautiful valley, a struggle between militants and 350,000 Indian security forces is escalating.

Almost every day police report three to 10 killed on either side; hopes last spring for a normal life now seem distant as militants are bent on "internationalizing" the cause of Kashmir.

The militants, often foreign-born, are getting bolder - ambushing and killing two politicians campaigning for India's national elections this month, and even attacking Army posts for the first time. Indian forces are responding in kind. Almost everyone, from police and politicians to sources close to the militants, reports that a larger campaign of violence is in the offing. Indian officials state that in the past two months some 2,000 to 3,000 militants have filtered into Kashmir across mountains that make up the disputed "line of control" separating India and Pakistan.

"We can't keep them out forever," says a weary Junior Home Minister Mustaq Hamid Lone, the No. 2 official in Kashmir responsible for law and order.

Partly, the rising violence stems from the fallout of the "Kargil war," as it is called. The bitter 12-week Indo-Pakistan war has frozen bilateral diplomacy. The overwhelming number of Kashmiris now seem in a state of permanent contempt against New Delhi. This month they boycotted Indian elections. Only 11 percent voted in the capital, Srinagar. For good or ill, and although most foreign policy experts say this is folly, what has captured the imagination of many Kashmiris is the international interventions in East Timor and Kosovo. Kashmiris see their own plight as similar to these other disputed territories. And they place hope for a process leading to independence or autonomy in the upcoming visit of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

India and Pakistan, which tested nuclear weapons last year, have deep emotional as well as long-standing legal claims on Kashmir, dating to the epic partition of 1947. The two have fought four wars since that time largely over this region, and both have an implacably rigid policy on Kashmir: Both intend to have it.

India says it will "never" negotiate on Kashmir, while Pakistan wants outside brokerage over the territory.

"India and Pakistan are paying an extremely high price for their position," argues Muzzaffar-H-Baig, a Harvard-educated Kashmiri who is running for Parliament. "Kashmir is sucking money and power from India. It is creating fundamentalism on both sides. And it is a wound eating the vitals out of Pakistan."

The Kargil war also created a tactical opening for militancy here. When Pakistani troops occupied a 100-mile stretch of terrain in northern Kashmir, India responded by pulling border guards out of the valley to reinforce the Kargil line. This allowed militants to slip in where the troops pulled out.

Almost everyone involved says the nature of the militants is changing. In the late '90s, as the insurgency switched from local "boys" - as they called themselves - to foreign agents, the population came to hate or fear the outsiders. They often knocked down doors, forced villagers to help them, and stole food. Now the militants are trying to win favor with the local populations. They stress their authentic Islamic credentials and behave as friends.

"Instead of stealing a chicken," says local journalist Surender Oberoi, "the mujahideen today ask how much it costs. If the chicken costs 100 rupees, they will pay 150 rupees."

Equally as challenging, others say, is a cadre of some 35,000 Kashmiri boys who have been arrested, jailed, and released as suspected militants. These youths live in a no-man's-land between the "gun culture" and the Indian police. Most are unemployed. They constitute a significant potential "army" of recruits, should matters disintegrate further, though they have signed statements promising to eschew violence.

"I have given up violence. But do I have an argument for those who have seen 800 friends killed since 1996?" says Yasim Malik, who with four other "boys" started the military insurgency in 1987, and who today lives in downtown Srinagar as the representative of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. "I have taken the approach of Gandhi. But unlike the British, who never set up interrogation centers but only jailed Gandhi, the government of India tortures, rapes, and commits non-Gandhian violence every day. What do I say? What we look for is the logic of Kosovo and East Timor."

"New Delhi has not given what is needed to Kashmir," states Javaid Hussain Shah. Mr. Shah is a former militant leader who has renounced his past and is now part of the Indian government in Kashmir. "If New Delhi gave even half of what it promised, there would be no militancy in Kashmir today."

Such views are misguided, some experts say. "There is plenty of money floating in Kashmir, and plenty of roads have been built," says one expert who did not want his name used. "What this place needs is more elections and a deepening of democracy, even if the people are forced to vote again and again."

What most ordinary Kashmiris desire is peace and normalcy. Last week, a cinema in downtown Srinagar opened for the first time in 10 years. As theater-goers left in the tart night air, a militant hurled a grenade at the crowd, killing one person. The cinema closed, again.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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