Singh Has an Opportunity in Kashmir

The Kashmir valley has been convulsed by a series of violent protests since June. Demon-strations that began over alleged extrajudicial killings by Indian security forces quickly spiraled out of control, claiming at least 15 civilian lives—with each new death leading to another round of protest marches and more deaths as paramilitary police met rock-hurling demonstrators with tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition. To break the cycle, the Indian Army has been deployed on the streets of Srinagar, the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, for the first time in 15 years. Officials imposed a 24-hour curfew in parts of the city and in several smaller towns where demonstrations took place, and banned public gatherings of more than four people.

The civil unrest threatens the gains that have been made in Kashmir. Over the last few years, the insurgency that sought to wrest Kashmir from Indian control appeared to be petering out. Pakistani-based terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) continued to send militants across the border to attack Indian troops in Kashmir, but increasingly they were killed before inflicting much damage. Fewer and fewer local Kashmiris joined the fight. The number of violent incidents dropped below 500 in 2009, the lowest level in the history of the conflict, according to Indian government statistics. Tourists returned to the region in record numbers. And in June, New Delhi resumed peace talks with Islamabad, raising hopes that their dispute over Kashmir might soon be settled.

For Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the spate of violence presents a difficult challenge. He needs to resist hawks in his government, like his home minister, P. Chidambaram, who justify the heavy-handed tactics of the security forces by conflating the recent protests with the long-running insurgency and accusing, without much evidence, Pakistan and LeT of orchestrating the demonstrations. Instead, Singh should recognize this protest movement for what it is: an expression of pent-up anger and frustration by young Kashmiris who feel alienated from the rest of India. They are frustrated with the lack of economic opportunity in the state, and they are fed up with living like an occupied people: hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers and police are stationed in Kashmir, their presence visible throughout the valley. These security forces have been granted legal immunity, a situation that has only invited abuses.

What’s more, Kashmiris fret they are being treated as pawns by both New Delhi and Islamabad, which have negotiated over Kashmir’s fate without any substantive input from the Kashmiris themselves. Young men participating in the demonstrations say they want an independent Kashmir. But this is largely because, in their experience, the Indian state has offered little but repression. It is up to New Delhi to change this perception.

With a few important gestures, Singh could defuse some of the anger on the streets and buy important support for a lasting peace with Pakistan. First, Singh should repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the law that gives Indian troops in Kashmir carte blanche to use deadly force and make warrantless arrests and searches. New Delhi should also move to prosecute members of the security forces implicated in extrajudicial killings. Singh has repeatedly promised “zero tolerance for human-rights abuses.” But that pledge has yet to be backed by concrete action.

Singh should also reach out again to the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, the umbrella group of Kashmiri separatists. The Hurriyat, bowing to its hardline faction, has rejected Singh’s previous offers of dialogue for two reasons: the continued extension of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act to Kashmir and the separatists’ insistence that they have a seat at the table in negotiations between New Delhi and Islamabad on Kashmir’s final status. Lifting the act, however, might provide enough political cover for moderates, such as Hurriyat leader Omar Farooq, to enter into talks.

In 2007 India and Pakistan were reportedly close to reaching a deal that would have frozen Kashmir’s borders but allowed people and goods to flow freely across the Kashmir Valley. The teetering political authority of then–Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, followed by the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008, scuttled that possibility. The two sides may now be groping their way back toward a resolution. But unless Singh addresses the concerns of disaffected Kashmiris about human rights, economic development, and political autonomy, he may find he has brokered a historic peace without bringing peace to the valley.

Kahn is a NEWSWEEK contributor based in New Delhi.

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