June 2004 News

Kashmir Breathes Again, But Optimism Still Scarce

17 June 2004

Sultan Daki: Faizullah's family ran for the bunkers as Pakistani shells thudded into their village from the other side of the mountains. When they emerged back into the sunlight an hour later, Faizullah found his two young grandsons lying dead in the fields. They were three and six years old. That was last August, three months before India and Pakistan agreed on a ceasefire along their frontline in the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir. Today, Faizullah and his family are slowly rebuilding their lives, and reclaiming fields they could scarcely farm for years. But hope in the tiny village of Sultan Daki - just a few kilometres from the frontline in Indian Kashmir - is tinged with a large dose of realism. 'It was terrible before the ceasefire, real hell,' Faizullah said, wringing his enormous hands as he sat under a tree in the village school. 'We could hardly sleep in our homes. Now it is peaceful. 'But I am not optimistic,' the bearded 65-year-old said. 'Nobody is ready to listen to each other, nobody is ready to concede. I don't think it will last much longer.' The mainly Muslim Kashmir Valley is the centre of a 15-year insurgency against Indian rule, waged with the clandestine backing of Pakistan and at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. Today, relations between India and Pakistan are improving. As the neighbours embark on their first serious attempt to make peace in years, Kashmir is breathing again. The steep green mountain slopes around Sultan Daki no longer echo with the thump of shelling. People are out in the fields harvesting their first paddy crop in years, and the only sound is of the waters of the river Jhelum rushing through the gorge below. PREMIUM ON PEACE In the summer capital Srinagar, Indian soldiers still patrol the streets, but some of the oppressive sense of occupation has gone. Fewer militants are crossing from Pakistan to join the 'jihad' or holy war against Indian rule. Instead, tens of thousands of Indian tourists are visiting Kashmir to gaze at its snow-capped Himalayan peaks or drift on its tranquil lakes. Kashmir's sickly economy, traditionally dependent on tourism, is slowly struggling back to its feet. But all is not as well as it seems. The militants have not gone away, nor have the grievances that provoked their uprising. Violence has fallen, but is still claiming half a dozen lives a day. Kashmiris are desperate for peace, but their dissatisfaction with decades of misrule from New Delhi has not been forgotten, or forgiven. 'Everyone wants peace, but only under certain conditions,' said shopkeeper Manzoor Ahmed Lanker in Srinagar. 'It should be a respectable solution. But for that India has to give something. And I don't think their policy has changed.' Hardliners will not renounce the gun unless they see some rewards, analysts say. And while many locals might compromise on the dream of an independent Kashmir, they too are not ready for peace on India's terms. 'Kashmiris want peace, and they are tired of violence, but not peace at any price,' said Noor Ahmed Baba, a political science professor at the University of Kashmir. 'Many people have suffered and they have to feel they have got something substantial.' Baba is worried that a change of government in New Delhi has taken the impetus out of a peace process launched by former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. 'Earlier this year things were more hopeful,' he said. 'But with the change of government some scepticism has come in. Things are not moving as fast as they ought to.'


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