Kashmir parties aim beyond war words

India and Pakistan have both indicated a new willingness to negotiate over Kashmir.

Shamsher Singh remembers the day, a month ago, when mortar shells from Pakistan rained down on his pastureland in the tense border area of the disputed Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

During the three-hour shelling, Shamsher managed to retrieve his brother, Inderpal, who was trapped in the fields, losing consciousness, and missing his left leg below the knee. Memories of that day have left Shamsher with a lasting distrust of the peace-talking Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

"We should just finish it off with a decisive war," he says, standing outside the cramped room he now shares with a dozen members of his family in a makeshift migrant camp near the city of Jammu. "Yes, people will be killed by war, but anyone who survives after the war will be able to live in peace. As it is now, we are dying daily."

New tenor of fighting

Since Sept. 11, the troubles in this Muslim-dominated state have taken on new urgency. With some of the same militant groups that supported the Taliban launching attacks in and around the disputed state of Kashmir, there is a growing American fear that the forces of militant Islam may regroup and relaunch their war elsewhere. Add to this potent mix the fact that India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons.

Yet, while India and Pakistan are backing off for now from the brink of war over Jammu and Kashmir, a final resolution seems far out of reach. For the thousands of villagers who live within a few miles of the tenuous cease-fire line, called the Line of Control, this on-again off-again cycle of war has eroded any trust in a peaceful solution.

"There has been a hype for war by the politicians, but despite that, everybody is clear that war is not going to happen," says Rekha Chowdhary, a political science professor at the University of Jammu. "But in the meantime, normal life is getting disturbed."

This rhetoric may tone down after the Feb. 21 elections in India's Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Kashmir, Dr. Chowdhary says. But by then, the rhetoric may have gotten out of hand. "On the ground level, these troops are facing each other, and anything can trigger it."

Throughout the state, where nearly half a million troops have been deployed, the signs of war are plentiful. Three weeks after President Musharraf called for a halt to Pakistan's decades-long support of Muslim militancy, Pakistani artillery and mortar shelling in some districts has reached a 30-year peak, suggesting that Musharraf may not have full control of his commanders.

Militant infiltration has declined in the past two months, Indian Army sources say, but this may have more to do with the presence of heavy snows in the mountain passes and new laid mine fields in the porous border areas around Jammu. The only way to know if Musharraf is sincere is if infiltration continues to decline after the snows melt.

Since the present conflict began 13 years ago, 40,000 people have been killed. In the past month, more than 280 people were killed statewide, 62 of them civilians.

"On the Line of Control, infiltration continues," says Vijay Raman, the inspector general for the Indian Border Security Force in Jammu. Pakistan's Army continues to support these militants, he adds. "Without their connivance, it would not be possible for them to even get close to the border. Every place our forces have deployed, they have taken up positions on the other side. Obviously, some effort is there to push these people across."

Finding negotiated solutions

While there is no letup in military operations in the state itself, there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity. Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar indicated recently that Pakistan is ready to begin talks with India over the fate of Kashmir, and the Indian government has recently appointed a new negotiator to open talks with Kashmiri separatists, who operated under an umbrella group called the All Parties Hurriyat Conference.

Even so, the rhetoric turns strangely hormonal at times, particularly over nuclear arsenals. Last week, after India carried out a long-planned test of its Agni missile, which is capable of carrying nuclear warheads, Pakistani military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, told reporters that Pakistani missiles were far superior to Indian ones and could hit any target in India.

But for Jaggu Ram and his wife, Chibu, all this talk of nuclear war is no more terrible than the sad condition of their present lives, cut off from their land and their livelihoods.

Last month, Jaggu was taking a bath outside his farmhouse just a few hundred yards from the Line of Control. Suddenly, a firefight broke out between Pakistani and Indian border troops. Among the hundreds of bullets that flew through the air, one pierced a tin bucket of hot water that Chibu was carrying and hit Jaggu in the leg. The same firefight also killed one of the couple's two sons.

Chibu managed to get her husband to a hospital in Jammu, but in the meantime, Indian troops have laid landmines on her pastureland, making it impossible for them to gather fodder for their cattle. Now she worries about her ability to survive in a migrant camp, living on the three-kilo bag of flour that the government provides them each week.

"We eat one or two chapattis a day," she says, referring to the tortilla-like flatbread, a staple in most Indian kitchens.

Her eyes fill with tears. "I don't know what the solution is," she says. "We are illiterate. We don't have the education to think of solutions. In New Delhi, they can better understand the solutions. But in the meantime, our lives are pretty miserable."

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