Andrew Buncombe: The region at the heart of this deadly argument - Asia - World - The Independent

Andrew Buncombe: The region at the heart of this deadly argument

Again the talk is of Kashmir, disputed, coveted and often fought over. Kashmir has remained a flashpoint between India and Pakistan since Partition in 1947, when – amid fighting between the armies of India and the new state of Pakistan – the Hindu maharajah of the Muslim-majority princely state opted for an alliance with Delhi. At the time, it was agreed that a referendum, overseen by the UN, would determine the future of the province. The promised referendum, a vow made before the UN by India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, has never been honoured. In 1965, troops from the two countries again fought over the province.

Since the late 1980s, an estimated 70,000 people have been killed in Kashmir as militant Muslim groups battle for independence or integration with Pakistan. India has boosted its forces in the region to make it one of the most heavily militarised areas in the world with one Indian soldier for every 10 citizens. The security forces are routinely accused of abusing Muslims.

The biggest demonstrations in Kashmir for two decades came in the summer as up to 100,000 people took to the streets. The protests, triggered by a dispute over a decision by the state to hand over land for a Hindu shrine, escalated into full-blooded demonstrations for autonomy. Police killed at least 13 people after Muslim demonstrators ignored a curfew imposed after the murder of a high-profile separatist leader.

Since the election this year of a civilian government in Pakistan and the replacement of Pervez Musharraf as President with Asif Ali Zardari, there had been hopes that the relationship between Islamabad and Delhi might be improved. Mr Zardari said the two countries should not be held "hostage" by Kashmir and that the issue could be set aside while they sought progress on other issues.

Yet 60 years after India vowed a referendum on Kashmir's future and with countless thousands of lives having been lost, there appears little room for manoeuvre. When Barack Obama suggested the issue of Kashmir should be quickly resolved so Pakistan could concentrate on the battle against its own extremists, there was a unified response from all levels of the Indian establishment: "Mind your own business".

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