Slim signs of cool off in Kashmir

As India put its hopes in Western-led diplomacy, Pakistan vowed yesterday not to initiate war.

India is hoping its aggressive stance against "cross-border terrorism" reaps international dividends in coming days, as British and American officials seek to cool its tense stand-off with Pakistan.

And in an address to the nation yesterday, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said that Pakistan did not want war with India. "Pakistan will not be the one to initiate war. We want peace in the region," he said.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw will visit Islamabad and Delhi this week, with US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage scheduled to arrive in the region next week. Their trips show just how seriously the West is taking this million-troop face-off between South Asia's nuclear-armed neighbors.

Recent appeals by President Bush for "war against terror" ally General Musharraf to crack down on Pakistani militants have been music to the ears of the Indian administration. It has eagerly seized on the post-Sept. 11 language of "cross-border terrorism" to seek just such support against what it says is a "proxy war" by Pakistan-backed militants in the disputed region of Kashmir.

Commodore Uday Bhaskar, deputy director of the Delhi-based Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, says India has used tough rhetoric along with high-stakes military maneuvering to "try to convey the scale of the problem" to Washington and the world.

The Dec. 13 suicide attack on India's parliament, which India blamed on Pakistan-backed militants, was the country's "mini-Sept. 11," says Commodore Bhaskar. "[People realized] this country is already at war, a proxy war."

US pressure has already seen Musharraf promise to rein in infiltrators, including imposing bans on three militant outfits. India, however, complains that words are not being followed by actions.

But the probability of war between India and Pakistan at this stage is low, says Bhaskar, unless there is some "very unexpected wild card."

This cannot be entirely ruled out after the May 14 attack on an Army base in Kashmir in which more than 30 people were killed. The massacre spurred Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to talk of a "decisive battle."

On the streets of Kashmir's largest city, Srinagar, there is, however, no sense of panic. Stops and searches are already routine, with soldiers stationed on every major street corner.

The underlying source of bitterness is a promise by India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to allow the population of India's only Muslim-dominated state to vote on whether to accede to India, or to Pakistan, or pursue an independent state. No such plebiscite has ever taken place.

In the intervening years, India and Pakistan have fought two wars over the area, and more than 35,000 people have been killed since a large-scale anti- Indian rebellion began in 1989.

Despite its eagerness to internationalize an end to the "proxy war," India has repeatedly made it clear over the years that it will not accept outside mediation over the future of Kashmir.

"What is deplorable about the international community right now is that they are not simultaneously asking India to solve this age-old conflict, which has been lying there before the United Nations ever since 1948," says academic and activist Hamida Nayeem.

Indeed, there is widespread cynicism in Srinagar about why rhetoric and forces have been ramped up now.

"The [Indian] government is trying to mislead the whole world into linking events with Al Qaeda," says businessman Parveez Sajad.

Cries of azadi, freedom, fill the air at what is a mourning ceremony for moderate Kashmiri separatist leader Abdul Gani Lone, gunned down last week in an apparent warning to those perceived to be moving too close to Delhi.

"Kashmir is an international recognized dispute, which involves the people's inalienable right to self determination and therefore India's clamor against terrorism carries no conviction," says Prof. Abdul Gani Bhat, one of the leaders of the opposition umbrella group All Parties Hurriyat Conference, to which Mr. Lone also belonged.

On the pro-Pakistani side of the group, the movement is largely indigenous and political, Bhat says, but welcomes "guest" fighters.

Indian Border Security Force deputy inspector Gen. Rajinder Singh Bhuller, whose job is to catch such infiltrators, says that following Musharraf's Jan. 12 pledges there was a dip in the flow of infiltrators, but as snow melts in the high passes, numbers have picked up again.

Those crossing the border are about 55 percent Kashmiri and 45 percent Pakistani with a few Afghans, says Mr. Bhuller.

This is indeed Musharraf's post-Sept. 11 dilemma, with it widely understood that he managed to get militant parts of his administration and Army to join the US-led action against Afghanistan on the understanding that backing for Kashmir would continue.

"If they [Indian officials] think it is so easy to control these extremists – these militants – within a specific time duration, then they are living in a fool's paradise," says Dr. Nayeem. "You have seven lakh [700,000] Indian troops stationed in Kashmir, and they have not been able to root out militancy all these years.... How can Musharraf within months, within days, control them?"

The Indian government appears to have accepted this, for now, with rhetoric cooling in recent days and unconfirmed reports in the local media that it will extend up to two months to the general to take action.

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