Kashmir violence reignites sectarian tensions

The pro-independence protests in the Muslim-majority state are threatening India-Pakistan peace talks.

Mukhtar Khan/AP
Kashmiri women shouted slogans against the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Jananta Party and for freedom as they joined the funeral procession of two civilians killed Tuesday by government forces during a protest, in Srinagar, India.

During protests this week in Indian-held Kashmir, at least 20 people have been killed and more than 500 injured. This violence is part of a backlash to the blockade by Hindus last week of the road linking the Kashmir Valley with the rest of India.

The protests – the largest in Kashmir in two decades – ostensibly began with a row over a land transfer. But they have now widened into a pro-independence campaign that threatens to revive sectarian tensions and undo peace talks between longtime rivals India and Pakistan.

Trouble began when the government of India's only Muslim-majority state announced in June that it would transfer 99 acres of land to a religious Hindu group. Muslims angrily protested the deal, causing the government to back down. But the retraction provoked new protests – and the road blockade – from the state's Hindus.

Campaigners seeking independence for Kashmir from Indian rule are now using the land transfer issue to whip up anger against occupation in hopes of reviving the 20-year-old struggle that has somewhat deflated in recent years. This is in part due to internal feuding between separatists and also because Pakistan, which also holds part of Kashmir, has reduced support to Kashmiri militants amid peace talks with its neighbor.

There are fears that those peace talks will be damaged by Kashmir's latest troubles. On Tuesday, Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, condemned "excessive and unwarranted use of force" in Kashmir.

The Indian foreign ministry, in turn, said such comments did not "contribute to creating the atmosphere necessary for the dialogue process between India and Pakistan to move forward."

But the peace talks might be threatened by much more than a resurgent independence movement. Mounting militancy in Pakistan, the bombing of India's embassy in Afghanistan – which India blamed on Pakistan – and Pakistan's current political crisis constitute greater obstacles.

"It's very unlikely at this time that Pakistan, with its more pressing matters, is stoking the conflict," says Seema Desai, an Asia analyst with the Eurasia Group consultancy in London. "After all, the peace talks are still happening."

Successive rounds of peace talks since 2004 have reduced violence, which has claimed at least 40,000 lives over the years. But they have done little to solve the Kashmir dispute, largely due to India's intransigence on the matter. Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf proposed in 2006 that the region should be self-governed. But India rejected the idea.

Meanwhile, tensions in Kashmir appear likely to worsen, especially in Srinagar, where residents have long resented the heavy presence of Indian police and paramilitaries.

All of those killed this week were Muslims, shot by police. The situation remained tense Wednesday when Indian security forces eased a total curfew so that residents could stock up on food. Last year, Indian police were accused of murdering innocent civilians and passing them off as militants to gain promotions.

The latest troubles have also stoked deep enmities between Kashmir's Muslim and Hindu communities, after years of relative peace. There are fears such tensions could spread throughout India if Hindu groups choose to politicize the issue ahead of elections next year. Indeed, flag-waving Hindu protesters stopped traffic along roads leading to the capital, New Delhi, on Wednesday.

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