May 2001 News

Ceasefire brings little relief to Kashmir

17 May 2001
The Indian Express

Srinagar: The Army truck slows behind a packed Kashmiri bus, hooting furiously. Perched on sandbags on the back of the truck, a young paramilitary soldier, so young he could be mistaken for a girl in the fading light of dusk, is visibly anxious. He swings his rifle to the far right and to the far left, his eyes jerking nervously in the direction of his gun barrel, looking for militants who might lob a grenade at him. Then the bus pulls in, the truck speeds past and the moment is past, just one of a thousand moments of tension repeated daily in Kashmir. Driven by a mix of nationalism and fundamentalism - blamed by India on Pakistan for alleged support of militants, and by Pakistan on India for refusing to let Kashmiris decide their own fate - the revolt shows no sign of ending any time soon. Despite a suspension of hostilities against militants which India put into effect in November, and despite US calls for dialogue on Kashmir, the tension is if anything worsening. "It will go on," says Mohammad Shafi Bhat, a pro-independence member of the ruling National Conference party. "It will go from bad to worse." "The majority of the people of Jammu and Kashmir will opt for Pakistan because they have 53 years of experience of Indian policies," says Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a 72-year- old hardliner who is supported by most of the separatist militant groups. "Our religion is not safe being in India," he adds. Kashmir valley is a cool green paradise of open spaces dotted with poplar and chinar trees, of Alpine houses with sloping roofs, ringed by the mountains of the Himalayas. Its very beauty has been part of the problem. Nehru was descended from Kashmiris and his passionate attachment to the place was inherited by Indira Gandhi, who trekked the mountains with him. No one walks for pleasure now in the heavily guarded mountains, though separatist guerrillas manage to slip through from Pakistan, trekking through ice and snow to achieve martyrdom by launching suicide attacks on Indian soldiers. Around half the militants fighting in Kashmir are from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, police say. They base their assessment on the bodies of militants killed in clashes with security forces. NUCLEAR THREAT In some ways, this is nearly a forgotten conflict. The daily death toll has become so routine that few outside the Valley pay attention any more. But it is kept alive on the international scene by the fact that both Pakistan and India are now nuclear powers - they proved that to the world by testing nuclear devices in 1998. In the streets of Srinagar, though, the threat is not immediately apparent. Locals shop at fruit stalls, children walk crocodile-style along its famous Dal Lake on a school outing, women in black chadors, others in saris, men buying cigarettes. It is not until dusk that that the town becomes menacing. The jumpy paramilitary soldier. Eerie road blocks in dimly lit streets. The sudden emptying of roads thronged by people during the day. Once lively evening cafes closed. Srinagar's grandest hotel and one-time tourist paradise - its only concession to the conflict a sign at the door saying "No weapons beyond this point" - is nearly empty. Violence has continued unabated since hardline groups spurned Government's ceasefire offer as a bid to win international support. More than 1,000 people, including the security forces, separatist militants and civilians, have died since the November truce, which is due to expire at the end of May. "As far as the ground situation is concerned there was no ceasefire," says Geelani. Sitting cross-legged in his house reading the morning papers, he reels off a list of atrocities he says have been committed by Indian soldiers, of women gang-raped, militants tortured and houses razed. The authorities deny any systematic human rights abuses in Kashmir. But observers on all sides of Kashmir's ideological divides admit tension is running high on the ground. Suicide attacks have increased since the ceasefire, and the paramilitary soldiers are getting correspondingly jumpy. Despite an offer by New Delhi of peace talks - spurned by militants because they would not include Pakistan - the tension on the ground is prompting even Kashmiri moderates to throw up their hands in despair. "There is much hatred against India," says one politician. "They are strong because of their Army here, but one day they will have to go."


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