For the first time in several years, the Indian government on Friday gave indications that it might finally consider the longstanding demands of Kashmiris to reduce its troop presence in the Kashmir valley.
Under persistent pressure from the People's Democratic Party (PDP), a ruling coalition partner in the semiautonomous Kashmiri government, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that India's Defense Ministry has convened a committee of experts to study plans for demilitarizing the region.
For many Kashmiris, the new potential for troop reduction indicates a home stretch in the 17-year-long effort to end the region's violent conflict. Troop reductions in Kashmir would also represent a final push toward peace between India and Pakistan. Two of the three major wars the nations have fought with each other have been closely related to disagreement over the future of the Kashmir Valley.
The number of Indian troops, widely seen as the visible agent of Indian oppression, now stands at nearly 600,000 – a significant increase from 36,000 in 1989 when militancy flared.
But by the Indian government's own estimates, violent deaths have dropped by two-thirds since 2001, to 3 a day from 10, the lowest since 1989. Some 376 terrorists have surrendered to Indian security forces in the three years preceding Nov. 30, 2006, according to India's Home Ministry.
The number of Islamic militants operating in the valley have also decreased to about 1,400 from nearly 10,000 in the early 1990s.
"It is unjustified having so many troops here," says Khurram Pervez, a Kashmiri human rights activist from the Coalition of Civil Society in Srinagar, the region's summer capital. "It's understandable to have, say, 100,000 troops to fight a few hundred militants. Not 600,000."
Calls for demilitarization received fresh impetus after several recent, high-profile alleged human rights abuses on the part of Indian soldiers in the region. Members of the Indian Army were held in December on charges of killing innocent Kashmiri civilians and passing off their bodies as unidentified terrorists in order to increase their eligibility for promotion.
Kashmiris are also lobbying for the repeal of the Indian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a law that many human rights groups say grants Indian soldiers sweeping impunity to commit human rights violations under the guise of fighting terrorism.
According to Indian government estimates, about 1,017 Kashmiris have disappeared mysteriously or were killed in fake gunfights. Human rights groups say that the figure is nearly eight times higher. In January this year, Mohammed Mir, a 22-year-old car mechanic in Srinagar, mysteriously disappeared. Days later, his body, which was riddled with bullets, was handed over to his family by the 52 Rashtriya Rifles, a regiment of the Indian Army, who said that he was a militant killed in action.
"My son was a good man," says his father, Abdul Mir. "[The Army] murdered him."
With militancy at an all-time low, the Indian government must reciprocate by "cutting troops significantly to provide much needed relief to local Kashmiris," says Ershad Mahmud, research coordinator at the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad. "We notice [the militants'] stance is softening," Mr. Mahmud says. "[The militants] want to give peace a chance."
Declining militancy levels in Indian Kashmir, he says, are a sign of the Pakistani government's tightening grip over jihadist groups within Pakistan.
In early March, Syed Salahuddin, the supreme commander of the militant group Hizbul Mujahideen and head of the United Jehad Council (UJC), supported Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf's peace plan with India, calling his four-point proposal to India for self-governance in Kashmir as a "first step towards resolving the Kashmir" issue.
Demilitarization is the only way to make the India-Pakistan peace process "more meaningful," says Muhammad Yahya Mujahid, the information secretary of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an offshoot of the Islamic group Lashkar-i-Tayyaba on the phone from Pakistan. "They must act. Mere promises aren't enough."
The formation of an exploratory committee is a significant turnaround for India's policy on Kashmir. In mid-March, Prime Minister Singh had expressed his reluctance to demilitarize because of the likelihood of increased infiltration of militants in coming months.
"There are intelligence reports that militants will engage in major strikes this summer," he said.
The reduced militancy is largely due to India's fencing-off of the Line of Control [LoC] separating the Indian and Pakistani sides of Kashmir, says Arif Jamal, a Pakistan based terrorism expert.
"[The fence] has significantly enhanced the Indian Army's capability to put a brake on infiltration," says Mr. Jamal. "It has made it very difficult for militants to carry arms and ammunition into Indian Kashmir."
But the jihadist terror networks in Pakistan remain largely intact, Jamal warns. "I do not see militancy coming to a complete end," he says. "It may spiral out of control in the future."
While condemning the human rights abuses of his colleagues, a senior Indian Army officer posted in Kashmir, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that the Army should remain in Kashmir.
Stray instances of militant attacks continue even now, he says. On Friday, the day that the Indian leader made his announcement, five Hindu civilians were killed as militants attacked homes in the Rajouri district of Indian Kashmir.