Graffiti on a wall approaching the headquarters of a leading Islamic militant group here says it all: "Jihad till doomsday" and "No compromise on Kashmir."
When Muslim prayers are over, the offices of Lashkar-i-Tayyaba, which publicly backs jihad against Indian troops in Kashmir, is crowded with dozens of boys, some as young as 8 or 10. The group's leaders refute claims by Western intelligence officials that children and young men are trained to use weapons before being sent to fight in Kashmir, saying that recruits are given only Islamic education.
The expected arrival of a delegation of Kashmiri representatives in Pakistan later this week has added to speculation that Pakistan and India, which have fought three wars in their 53-year history, have quietly agreed to a new peace process. But it is groups such as the Lashkar-i-Tayyaba that are likely to resist a settlement in the Himalayan territory divided between India and Pakistan, with a small portion under Chinese occupation.
Whenever there have been suggestions of settlement in the past, Islamic groups have demonstrated their ability to disrupt. Many followers of militant groups have fought for the Taliban, Afghanistan's strict Islamic rulers, or for separatists in Kashmir. Yesterday, Lashkar-i- Tayyaba claimed responsibility for a suicide attack that killed 10 people at the airport in a Kashmir city, Srinagar.
The visit from members of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella group of separatist Kashmiris, could precede the resumption of peace talks between India and Pakistan, broken off in early 1999 when Pakistan-backed fighters crossed into Indian-administered Kashmir and launched attacks on Indian troops. "It appears to be a triangular process, where the Kashmiris will first talk to each side and then hope that India and Pakistan would meet," says a senior Western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
But Azam Malik, who says he's twice been to the jihad in Kashmir and is now a regular visitor to the Lashkar-i-Tayyaba center, says, "There can be no settlement on Kashmir. The jihad must continue till victory." Suhail Khan, a fellow teenager, agrees, "the matter of Kashmir has gone too far and there can be no turning back now."
Since 1989, a separatist insurgency has fought for independence for the predominantly Muslim territory and the opportunity to decide whether to remain within India or join Pakistan.
But Western diplomats say that India will never concede independence, though it may grant local autonomy. An eventual settlement may also allow reunions of families separated when the region was divided between India and Pakistan at the time of independence from British colonial rule.
While many Kashmir analysts are encouraged by recent peace moves, starting with a cease-fire begun during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, many acknowledge that resistance may hamper progress. "We have to hope for the best but be prepared for the worst," says Amanullah Khan, leader of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, a Kashmiri group that favors no affiliation with either India or Pakistan. "Eleven years of continuous struggle ... has meant that those who want to see a peace initiative may be outnumbered by those who favor a continuous jihad."
Asma Jehangir, a human rights lawyer who favors an India-Pakistan peace initiative, adds, "There could be a short-term peace if India and Pakistan remain committed.... But in the long run, there is a problem because not everyone agrees on how a settlement should come about."
However, Western diplomats say that moving the peace process forward may depend to a large extent on how far Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf can resist the Islamic groups. They have never won more than a handful of seats in parliament, which suggests that their strength is driven more by their ability to organize violent protest, rather than riding high on the back of a wave of public support.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society