Peace Comes To Paradise

Sitting in the fortress-like police headquarters in Srinagar, Kashmir, last week, Shiv Murari Sahai, the top cop for the troubled Indian state, took an urgent phone call. That afternoon his officers had killed two Pakistan-based militants in the mountainous countryside. This brought to six the number of militants killed in firefights with police in just 24 hours, and his boss was calling for a report.

Once, this would have been a routine day for Sahai. But lately, violence in Kashmir—where separatists have waged a 20-year insurrection against India—has dropped to the lowest levels since the modern conflict began. There were just 777 politically related deaths there last year, down from 1,116 the year before and 4,507 in 2001, according to the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi. According to Sahai's department, most shoot-outs are now initiated by security forces successfully hunting militants, and only 164 civilians were killed last year.

The relative quiet is owed to several factors. Hizbul-Mujahedin, Kashmir's largest militant group, is in decline: much of its leadership has either been killed, captured, bought off by the Indian security services or simply surrendered. Militants are having trouble finding fresh recruits as well, according to Indian security experts. A newly constructed fence along part of the border has helped keep fighters from slipping in from Pakistan. And Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's crackdown on Islamic militants over the past five years has dampened the striking power of many groups based in his country that target Indian Kashmir.

The waning violence has prompted a highly touted tourism revival, with an expected 850,000 visitors this year—the most since 1988, according to the state tourism secretary. While the United States and most European countries still warn their citizens against traveling there, the houseboats on Srinagar's tranquil Dal Lake are full of holidaymakers, most of them drawn from India's emerging middle class. Nearby Gulmarg is becoming a popular ski destination, and a fifth topflight golf course is set to open soon, which tourism officials hope will draw duffers from around the world.

Meanwhile, renewed negotiations between India and Pakistan—which have fought two wars over Kashmir since Partition—have raised hopes that peace may be at hand. Last month President George W. Bush told Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, the new Pakistani prime minister, that Kashmir was "ripe for solution," according to news reports citing Pakistani officials present at the meeting. While a yawning gulf between Islamabad and New Delhi remains, Pakistani officials have gone out of their way to make conciliatory remarks in recent weeks.

But some Kashmir watchers say the current calm bears an uncanny resemblance to 2001, when the region also enjoyed a similar diplomatic thaw and high hopes of an economic recovery in the war-ravaged valley. Yet that period was soon followed by some of the fiercest fighting the conflict has seen, bringing India and Pakistan back to the brink of war in the spring of 2002.

There are ominous signs of another such resurgence now. "All indications are that violence is likely to loom large again," says Wilson John, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. In April, the United Jihad Council, an umbrella organization of Kashmiri militant groups, held a rally in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan—its first public display since 2001. This followed rallies by the jihadist organizations Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-i-Toiba, during which they renewed their commitment to wresting Kashmir away from India. Some analysts think the rallies are an indication that Pakistan, which, under U.S. pressure, has reined in the guerrillas in recent years, is once more "taking the gloves off"—or that renegades in its intelligence services are taking advantage of the turmoil in Islamabad, where pressure is mounting on Musharraf to step down, to pursue their own interests. "I suspect that you will see the [Inter-Services Intelligence] and elements linked to the establishment doing things autonomously and trying to set the agenda in terms of the India-Pakistan relationship," says Brahma Chelleney of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

Others believe the militants may have found new sources of money and training and that Pakistan's recent policy shift has made them even more dangerous, since they're no longer accountable to Islamabad. Whatever the explanation, last month Indian Army posts along the Line of Control came under heavy fire twice—including one case allegedly involving Pakistani troops (Pakistan denies the incident occurred). Such cross-border firing is often used to cover large infiltrations of fighters.

Even optimists now predict that bloodshed may mar the upcoming state election this fall, as it has past votes. While the Hizbul-Mujahedin has said it will refrain from using arms to enforce a boycott of the polls, other, more capable jihadist groups may not show such restraint. "There will definitely be an attempt by militants to increase violence during the election period," Sahai says.

On the streets of Kashmir's towns and villages, one feels a sense of foreboding. While the body count has dropped, it hardly feels like peace. Some 600,000 Indian troops are still based there. In Srinagar, flak-jacketed police and paramilitary troops carrying automatic rifles stand guard at every major intersection, often from behind concrete bunkers, and barbed wire snakes around the hills on the outskirts of town.

The heavy Indian presence builds resentment among the locals. "Who are they protecting?" asks Sajjaad Lone about the troops. Lone is the leader of the People's Conference, a moderate separatist group, and the son of a top separatist politician who was assassinated in 2002. He says that India's heavy footprint amounts to "psychological coercion to keep the people down."

Local human-rights activists are now trying to determine the fate of nearly 8,000 Kashmiris who disappeared over the course of the conflict—another powerful source of popular discontent. In March, activists documented mass graves containing more than 1,000 bodies in the northern part of the state, close to the Pakistani border. The government claims these graves contain the corpses of foreign militants killed in battle or local insurgents who could not be identified. But human-rights workers say they may include innocent civilians arrested in security sweeps and later executed by the police and Army. "We see systemic and institutional repression here," says Parvez Imroz, a lawyer who heads the Coalition of Civil Society, one group involved in identifying the graves.

While foreign-policy experts and diplomats may be optimistic that negotiations between India and Pakistan will lead to a breakthrough, the mood on the ground is less sanguine. Lone says the talks haven't done anything for the Kashmiri people. He scoffs, for example, at the bus service initiated between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad in 2005 and heralded as an important step toward peace. "A bus service was all they got? For 20 years of suffering and sacrifice?"

Some of Lone's frustration is shared by mainstream politicians who favor greater autonomy, rather than independence, from New Delhi. Omar Abdullah represents Srinagar in the Indian Parliament and is a former federal cabinet member. But he, too, is bitterly disappointed with New Delhi's handling of Kashmir, particularly following the 2003 ceasefire with Pakistan. "People expected a greater peace dividend: less-oppressive security measures, more forward movement, more actual realization of [measures like cross-border trade]," he says. "Unfortunately, we haven't got that."

To make matters worse, moderate separatists who began talks with New Delhi in 2004, braving retaliation from hard-liners in their own camp, have received no concessions in return for their courage. "You can't clap with one hand," says Omar Farooq, the 34-year-old Mirwaiz, or spiritual leader of Kashmir's Muslims, and head of a moderate separatist faction. "There is no reciprocity from Delhi." Farooq says that's cost him and other moderates popular support, particularly among Kashmir's increasingly alienated and radicalized youth.

Farooq's loss has been to the gain of men like Syed Ali Geelani, head of a hard-line faction. Interviewed in his home in Srinagar, where he is currently under house arrest, he said that armed struggle against India was "a compulsion" since India had rejected "all the peaceful means to get our rights." And he called for a boycott of the upcoming state elections. "There is no hope that they will be free and fair," he says. When Geelani called for a business boycott last month to protest a visit by Indian President Pratibha Patil, most shops in Srinagar shut down and angry mobs took to the streets.

In the early 17th century, the Mughal Emperor Jahangir visited Kashmir and declared that "if there is paradise anywhere on earth, it is here." This wildly beautiful territory certainly still has that potential. But hard-liners like Geelani, revived militancy in Pakistan and foot-dragging by New Delhi mean Jahangir's paradise still feels more like purgatory—with the prospect of hell looming over the landscape.

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