Though Kashmir Now Burns, Hope of Reconciliation Arises

At least 49 people have died over the past two months in street clashes between protesters and paramilitary troops in Indian Kashmir.

The entire world has been witness to scenes of clashes between rock-throwing Kashmiri protesters who have set official buildings and vehicles ablaze, and paramilitary police using guns and tear gas in an effort to contain the large crowds.

It is unfortunate that it has taken two months of violent unrest in Kashmir for the Indian federal government to step in to try cooling temperatures down. Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram asserted that the Centre was ready to resume dialogue with all sections, including the one led by Hurriyat hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, to address the problems in Jammu and Kashmir. Acknowledging the need to "win hearts and minds" of the people of Kashmir, he expressed the government’s willingness to “resume the political process.”

Last year, Mr. Chidambaram had promised a phased withdrawal of troops from Kashmir, and promised to address the issue of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) -- an issue which is dear to the heart of the Kashmiris. Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah also had promised to work for the removal of AFSPA. However, not much action has been taken on this front.

In two recent speeches, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed to Kashmiris "to give peace a chance." Conceding that sweeping powers given to security forces in Kashmir were widely resented by local residents, Singh promised to “accelerate the process of strengthening and expanding the Kashmir police so that they can function independently and effectively within the shortest possible time.”

Despite Dr. Singh's conciliatory tone, two leading separatist leaders in Kashmir -- Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq -- have rejected the initiative. According to Geelani, "A reign of terror has been let loose by Indian security forces against a people who peacefully demand freedom from slavery and Indian imperialism.” Mirwaiz Farooq put forth a four-point demand, after the fulfillment of which the protests would subside. The four demands: “The withdrawal of Indian troops should start immediately; the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Disturbed Area Act should be repealed; bunkers and camps should be removed from cities and towns; and all political prisoners, including the recently arrested youths, should be released.”

As to be expected, the leading opposition party, BJP, has opposed any troop withdrawal from Kashmir or any phasing out of AFSPA. This is nothing new. Just three years after Partition, in 1950, there was a mass movement in Jammu led by the right-wing Praja Parishad. The movement demanded the complete integration of Kashmir with India and the abolition of Article 370. The then-Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Jana Sangh, led by Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, supported this movement, which took on a violent communal color during 1952-1953. The Praja Parishad movement and its support by a national level party not only worsened communal relations in Kashmir but in other parts of India as well.