Saturday, August 16, 2008

Kashmir riots rage

Violent protests in Kashmir threaten India-Pakistan peace process

Riots sparked by a controversial land-transfer deal have widened to become pro-independence rallies.

by Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor, August 14, 2008

Escalating unrest in Indian-controlled Kashmir threatens to derail a peace process between India and Pakistan that has extended over more than four years.

Riots, sparked by a land-transfer dispute, have also cast a shadow over local elections planned for this fall that were seen as a possible turning point toward greater stability.

Reports differed on the number of casualties from the violence. Bloomberg put the death toll at 27, after police on Tuesday fired on and killed 11 protesters who had defied a curfew.

Authorities cracked down on demonstrators a day after more than 50,000 took to the streets.... India's government accused its nuclear-armed neighbor of interference after Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi condemned what he described as "excessive and unwarranted use of force."

"The situation is tense," police official Kailash Kumar said. "The army has been called out and they are patrolling the streets."

The BBC explained that the current unrest began in May, when the state government in Indian Kashmir – also called Jammu and Kashmir State – decided to transfer some land to a Hindu trust that runs the Amarnath shrine, which is frequented by Hindu pilgrims. That deal sparked protests by the state's Muslim majority, which fears losing land rights.

The protests in the valley only subsided when the government dropped the plans - but that in turn triggered equally large protests in the Jammu region in the south of the state, where the majority Hindu population was outraged.

Now it is no exaggeration to say that the state could be heading towards a communal meltdown.

Angry Hindu extremists blocked roads between the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley in the north and the Hindu-dominated area around Jammu City in the south. That led to mass protests this week by Muslims, who said the blockade was preventing their fruit farmers from getting their produce to markets in the south. Agence France-Presse quoted observers saying that the unrest reflected a failure to increase basic security and economic conditions for Kashmiris.

They hope the massive protests will force New Delhi to admit it has not won "hearts and minds" in its part of the disputed Himalayan territory – despite claims it has – and accept the root causes of the conflict must be addressed.

"The protests are the manifestation of an anger that the peace process doesn't seem to have achieved anything," said Noor Ahmed Baba, a political science professor in Indian Kashmir's main university.

An editorial in the Indian daily newspaper The Hindu pointed out that the unrest had cast doubt on local elections planned for this fall in the Indian-controlled state.

Less than two months ago, politicians ... were discussing strategies for winning elections to the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, which are scheduled to be held in October. But poor political judgment — and an apparently catatonic administration — precipitated a crisis, which have made even the prospect of an election appear somewhat surreal.

The Pakistani daily Dawn published an editorial stating that the unrest was "threatening a wider conflagration" and has undone progress in revitalizing the region.

Indeed violence was on the decline, tourists had returned to the Kashmir valley and there was hope that the elections would be a turning point for stability in the region. But those gains have quickly evaporated and the Muslim protests, some of the largest seen in two decades, have widened to become pro-independence rallies.

The unrest in Kashmir comes on the heels of bombings in Indian cities that had already heightened India-Pakistan tensions. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the July 26 bombings in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad killed 45. Those attacks came a day after bombings in Bangalore and in the wake of May bombings in Jaipur that killed 60.

Security analysts suspect that Pakistan and Bangladesh-based Islamic militant groups were behind those attacks. Indian officials routinely claim that such groups are backed by the Pakistani government, but Pakistan denies this.

Tensions between the two nations also escalated last month over a series of skirmishes along the India-Pakistan border in Kashmir. The repeated exchange of fire was seen by both sides as a violation of a five-year-old cease-fire and sparked a mutual blame game, reported Reuters.

Both India and Pakistan claim the entire state of Kashmir, but control only part of the territory. The two nuclear powers have repeatedly come to blows over the region, most recently between 2001 and 2003, when tensions nearly led to all-out war.

A cease-fire in 2003 began a peace process that included talks and increased transport links across the so-called Line of Control separating Indian- and Pakistani-controlled areas of Kashmir. But analysts say New Delhi and Islamabad cling to irreconcilable claims that make a permanent solution of the territorial dispute unlikely anytime soon.

The International Crisis Group said in its latest report on Kashmir in 2006 that Muslim unrest within Indian-controlled Kashmir was fueled by frustration with the slow pace of the peace process and by the strong Indian security presence.

Observers in Srinagar and Jammu [Muslim-majority and Hindu-majority cities in Indian Kashmir] blame militancy on Pakistan but also warn that frustrated and alienated young Kashmiris, regardless of political affiliation, could join militants unless New Delhi changes its approach.

They attribute Kashmiri alienation to the overwhelming presence of Indian security forces, which, they say, create a sense of humiliation and loss of dignity and feed local perceptions that India is a colonial state.

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