Unusual summer of political calm in Kashmir

Subtle but unmistakable shifts have helped calm the situation in the valley

It was the third rage-filled summer in a row, and by the time the autumn leaves turned, more than 100 civilians had been killed. Apples rotted from their branches in orchards across the valley and the saffron went unharvested. The valley’s economy virtually collapsed.

When young Muslims across North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula rose up this spring against dictatorial governments, it seemed inevitable that their example would find voice here, in a mostly Muslim region which is a bone of contention between India and Pakistan.

Instead, the Kashmir Valley is enjoying an unexpected season of tranquillity. Tourists from across India have descended on the valley, filling just about every airplane seat, hotel room and houseboat. Business in Lal Chowk, the city’s bustling central market, is booming again. Wooden shikara boats ferry vacationers across the shimmering surface of Dal Lake, trying to dodge the latest attraction, zooming Jet Skis.

No grand bargain has been struck between India and Pakistan that would explain the new calm, and no major concessions have been made within the Indian portion of the region either. Draconian laws that shield security forces from prosecution still allow the police to arrest anyone suspected of disturbing the peace.

Yet subtle but unmistakable shifts have helped calm the situation in Kashmir, which sits astride one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear flash points.

“There is visible improvement in the situation, no doubt,” said Yusuf Tarigami, a senior state legislator. “In terms of the relationship with the Indian government, the relationship between India and Pakistan, and the quality of governance people are enjoying.”

A detente between India and Pakistan has helped cool tensions in the region, officials here say. Talks between the nations had been on hold for two years after militants from Pakistan attacked the city of Mumbai killing more than 160 people.

The talks resumed this year in earnest, and on July 27 the two countries announced a series of measures aimed at easing restrictions at the Line of Control, the de facto border between the parts of Kashmir each country controls.

After years of battling armed rebels seeking independence, the security forces in the region never fully shifted their mission from counterinsurgency to addressing unrest by civilians armed with nothing but rocks. But that has changed. They have received new training and equipment that allows them to control restive crowds without resorting to lethal force.

“The government security machinery is a lot better at handling situations that could arise out of protests than we were at the same time last year, in terms of equipment, in terms of training and in terms of mindset as well,” said Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir.

Young Kashmiris who last summer took to the streets to throw stones at security forces are back on university campuses and cricket fields, working summer jobs at family orchards and guesthouses. Dozens of bunkers that scarred the streets of downtown Srinagar have been removed, lifting the sense of siege that has hung over the city for years.

A provocation

“You drive through a crossroads in the middle of your city and instead of a roundabout you see a concrete bunker with guns pointing at you,” Abdullah said. “It was a provocation.”

Nighttime checkpoints, a humiliating nuisance to many Kashmiris, have been sharply curtailed. Heavily armed paramilitary forces used to line the streets of many city neighbourhoods, particularly areas with deep-seated separatist leanings. But these deployments have been reduced.

The government has appointed a trio of interlocutors who have been travelling around the Kashmir Valley, speaking to communities and trying to come up with ways to address their grievances. While the group has been derided for its low-key approach, its recommendations have been largely embraced in New Delhi.

Home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram has visited Kashmir several times, seeking to soothe anger over last summer’s violence. He declared on the floor of Parliament that because the way in which Kashmir became part of India (by decree from its Hindu sovereign more than 60 years ago) was unusual, Kashmiri demands required a unique solution. The admission was surprising coming from a government whose boilerplate statement has long been that Kashmir is an integral part of India.

Abdullah said in an interview that he had learned some tough lessons in the past few years. He said he had been too remote and out of touch with the way ordinary people felt.

“I got hammered really badly for being disconnected,” he said. “I think the biggest lesson is that there is absolutely no substitute for hard-core, people-to-people contact. You do not administer Jammu and Kashmir. You have to govern.”

Much of the unrest the Indian government has faced here in the past few years here was self-inflicted. After record turnout in elections in 2008, senior Indian politicians crowed that Kashmiris had essentially voted for union with India. This angered many who felt their vote had meant nothing of the sort: They were voting for local representatives to help with basic governance issues, not making a broad statement about their national identity.

After several years of unrest, a major test of the new calm came in late July, when a woman from the southern Kashmir Valley claimed that two army officers had kidnapped and raped her. In the past, such allegations were brushed aside, but this time, state and army officials immediately sprang into action. A senior minister was sent to meet with the woman and her family and a criminal investigation was immediately opened.

Abdullah vowed that anyone found guilty would be punished, in spite of laws shielding army personnel from criminal charges while working in Kashmir. After a few tense days and a strike that shut down the valley for a day, the crisis ebbed and life returned to normal.

But at the core, the issue for many Kashmiris remains unchanged. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the aging separatist leader who led the calls for strikes and protests over the last few years, said this lull was not true peace. “This is a forcible peace that has been made at the point of a gun,” he said. “People are under very grave slavery.”

Maqbool Rishi, a student of zoology at the University of Kashmir who took part in protests last year, said that the struggle for self-determination would continue. “It is just a cycle,” he said. “The protest will come again and again. It is the inner voice of Kashmir.”
His fellow student, Nafeez Ahmed, said that many Kashmiris had suffered devastating losses last year, and needed to regroup. His family lost its entire apple crop because it could not get it to market.

“Most of our fruits rotted on the trees,” he said. He had planned to buy a laptop for his studies, but the purchase had to be postponed. “Everyone lost a lot,” he said. “We need to earn to live.”



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