Kashmir Experiences New Wave Of Violence
4 September 2003
The Washington Post
Srinagar: After a relatively calm summer, a new wave of violence has spread across Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan province ravaged by a decade- long separatist war. Nearly every day brings a least a few attacks: soldiers ambushed, suspected informers tortured and killed, civilians cut down in gunbattles. Things had seemed promising after Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee launched a peace initiative in April to try to mend relations with Pakistan, which also claims the province. But no date for new talks has been set, and peace suddenly seems less likely than ever. Tourists who had begun to return to Kashmir for the first time since the separatist insurgency erupted in 1989 have all left once again. 'Just weeks ago you wouldn't find a room in Srinagar,' tour operator Nasir Ahmad said. Now, the hotels 'have emptied drastically,' he said. 'In the past couple of weeks, it seems like the old days have returned,' he said. It remains unclear exactly what touched off the new violence, which began with a gunbattle between soldiers and militants the day Vajpayee visited last month. It has gotten worse everyday since, and more than 90 people have been killed - at least 33 of them civilians. More than 100 people have been wounded. India and Pakistan had restored diplomatic ties after Vajpayee's April bid for peace, and buses are again crossing the border. The two sides may resume flights as well. The two nuclear-armed neighbors each control part of Kashmir, though both claim the region in its entirety and have fought three of their four wars over it. Over the years, more than 63,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in fighting in Kashmir. Perhaps most importantly, no date has been set to restart peace talks that have been stalled for more than two years. Some observers say the new violence broke out after it became clear the peace overtures were doing little to change life in Kashmir, and that there was no serious effort to involve the rebels in a meaningful negotiation. 'Talking peace to news reporters is charming but useless. To negotiate real peace talks should be directly held with rebels rather than conveyed through blurred media reports,' said S.M. Ali, a writer and political analyst based in Srinagar. Unless the government begins talks with the rebels, and stops portraying the conflict as a simple win-or-lose standoff, violence has 'little chance and reason to stop,' he said. In the highest profile attack, a top commander of the outlawed Jaish-e-Mohammad rebel group, Ghazi Baba, was killed last week by Indian soldiers in a gun battle outside Srinagar, the state's summer capital. Jaish denies that Baba died but Indian officials say they expect revenge attacks. Complicating the situation, a pair of car bombs exploded last week in the southern city of Bombay, killing more than 50 people and wounding more than 150. India blamed Muslim militants it says are backed by Pakistan. Pakistan denies the accusation, and has condemned the attacks. While violence has spiked in Kashmir's cities and towns, the guns roar even louder in border villages, where Indian and Pakistani troops regularly trade artillery and machine gun fire. 'There isn't a day which goes by without the shells whistling overhead,' said Ghulam Mohammad, who runs a calling booth in Kargil, a town 125 miles northeast of Srinagar. 'We live in a perpetual inferno.' Some even believe Indian security forces may have invited the renewed violence by claiming the lull in attacks was proof they had cleared the region of militants. 'The Indian government has provoked the militants by projecting their tactical silence as their defeat,' wrote Altaf Hussain, a Kashmiri columnist for the Al-Safa daily newspaper. But for most Kashmiris, questions of geopolitics or the intricacies of diplomacy don't mean much. They had simply hoped the quiet meant their lives would get a little easier. 'We are reaching the end of the tether and there is a chance that our disappointments may lead us into complete chaos,' Ali said.