'Confidence' measures falter in Kashmir

Tourism and cross-border buses have stalled. India has some 600,000 forces in Indian-administered Kashmir.

With the memory of the July 11 Mumbai (Bombay) bomb blasts still fresh, it's surprising to recall that just a few months ago, citizens of India and Pakistan were celebrating the first anniversary of a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, two Kashmiri cities on opposite sides of a cease-fire line.

The measure was intended as a "confidence-building measure," a sign that the two nuclear rivals were finally ready for peace. Today, it's clear that even those good times weren't so good.

Only 600 Kashmiris from both side of the cease-fire line have been allowed to take the bus since April 7, 2005. The application process is arduous – with separate requests required at a half-dozen Indian agencies. Those who get approved on the Indian side then must begin the process again, with an equal number of agencies in Pakistan.

"Peace process? There is no sign of a peace process as far as Kashmir is concerned," says Syed Ali Shah Geelani, leader of a hard-line separatist group called Tehreek-i Hurriyat in Srinagar. "How will this bus service help us? They [the Indians] are not giving us relief, and that can only come from the permanent resolution of this dispute."

In the absence of real negotiations over the future of Kashmir, India has continued a massive military presence in this Himalayan valley that has known 17 years of war. Separatists and apolitical Kashmiris alike say the Indian security forces have lost any popular goodwill as they act like occupiers – razing homes in villages, often with faulty information, and arresting young men, who sometimes never return.

"The way the security forces move about, it's always in a mood of cracking down," says Sheikh Showkat Hussein, a law professor at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar. "This is the time of the news channels in India, so whatever you try to project as a success, you can do. But for ordinary people there has been no change."

Police justify their hard techniques, noting that Kashmiri militant groups have changed their tactics, mounting deadly grenade attacks against tourists for the first time in a bid to create a sense of panic. On Saturday, India captured Mudassir Gojri, a top Kashmiri militant commander blamed for dozens of recent tourist killings.

"He is the organizer and the kingpin of the Lashkar-i Tayyaba in the [Kashmir] valley," said Gopal Sharma, the director-general of police in Jammu-Kashmir.

At least 65,000 civilian deaths

Since 1989, Indian forces – currently thought to number 600,000 Army and paramilitary – have been fighting a long counterinsurgency against dozens of separate militant groups, including Lashkar-i Tayyaba. Indian government estimates put the total number of insurgents at between 900 and 1,400.

It is a long war that has taken a massive toll on the Kashmiri people, with at least 65,000 deaths, most of them civilian. An additional 8,000 civilians have been listed as "disappeared," last seen in the custody of Indian security forces, according to the Srinagar-based Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons.

Pakistan officially condemns terrorist attacks, such as the bombings in Mumbai and in Srinagar on July 11. But Pakistani leaders say they give diplomatic and moral support to the Kashmiri separatist cause. Separatist leaders, including Mohammad Hafiz Said of Lashkar-i Tayyaba, reside in Pakistan.

Unlike previous tactics, such as car bombings and suicide attacks, no militant group is claiming responsibility for the recent spate of grenade attacks against tourists and Hindu pilgrims, which have claimed 15 lives since May 25.

"The grenade is a low-cost affair to these groups. The grenade thrower is a daily wager, who needs little training, so this is what we call outsourcing of militancy. It is a very cheap model for them," says Farooq Ahmad, deputy inspector general of the Jammu and Kashmir Police.

Tourism is hard hit

Whoever is attacking tourists has done irreparable harm to the multimillion- dollar tourism industry, the one part of the Kashmir economy that seemed to have gotten a boost from the peace process. Hotel owners say they have 90-percent vacancies after a good start this spring.

"This is a news gimmick, a way to create publicity for militants," says Amit Wanchoo, a local doctor, a member of the Hindu minority, and president of the Srinagar Rotary Club. "I don't look to the Army soldiers or the militants for solutions. It is basically all of us, Kashmiri [Hindus], Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, who have to solve this."

As a doctor, Dr. Wanchoo has seen the toll of this war, both in civilian injuries and in the less tangible problem of clinical depression rise. At Srinagar's only mental hospital, the number of cases of depression have risen to about 65,000 registered cases as of December 2005 from 1,500 in 1989.

"People have this feeling that, 'I have fought 15 years, I have lost my men, I have lost everything,' and now they want some feeling of achievement. It is very important to have a time frame for this," he adds.

While India has put further peace talks on hold with Pakistan, pending further investigation of the Mumbai blasts, many mainstream politicians in Srinagar urge India to stay the course.

"Seventy-two percent of the people voted in by-elections, despite a separatist boycott, so this many people want peace and want development," says Peerzada Mohammad Sayeed, president of the state's Congress Party and a minister in the present government. "But antisocial elements and jihadis want to derail the peace process."

Jammu and Kashmir at a Glance

• Total land area: 222,236 square kilometers

• 48% of Jammu and Kashmir under Indian control

• 35% under Pakistan control

• 17% under Chinese control

• Population: 13 million

• 10 million reside in Indian-administered Kashmir

• 3 million reside in Pakistani-administered Kashmir

• 80% of population of both sides of Jammu and Kashmir are Muslim; the rest are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Christians.

Source: www.kashmirnewz.com

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