India refuses to grant autonomy to Kashmir

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The Independent Online

The Indian central government yesterday turned down Kashmir's demand for autonomy, in an abrupt U-turn apparently reflecting official concern about the potential disintegration of the country.

The Indian central government yesterday turned down Kashmir's demand for autonomy, in an abrupt U-turn apparently reflecting official concern about the potential disintegration of the country.

Two weeks ago, the state assembly of Jammu and Kashmir, sitting in the summer capital, Srinagar, voted by a show of hands to press the central government to grant the state full autonomy within the Indian union. Except for finance, defence and foreign affairs, Kashmir would be completely self-governing. It would have its own president, prime minister and law courts.

For two weeks, while Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee tramped around Europe, meeting the Pope and Romano Prodi, the few ministers left to sweat out the pre-monsoon fug in Delhi parried and played for time. The Home Minister, Lal Krishna Advani, said the Kashmiri proposal was a matter for parliament to decide.

But yesterday the government rejected the autonomy idea outright. "If you were to accept the resolution, it would set in motion certain trends which are not in favour of national unity," Mr Advani said after yesterday's cabinet meeting.

Kashmir is the only Muslim-majority state in the Indian union, and the controversy over its accession in 1947 to India instead of to Pakistan has sparked two wars between the neighbouring states, and was behind the mountain war in Kargil which finished with Pakistan's climbdown exactly a year ago.

The insurgency in the Kashmir valley, which has rumbled for 10 years and turned India's favourite holiday resort into an armed camp, is the most vivid expression of the disaffection of Kashmiri Muslims. Many feel themselves to be second-class citizens.

So Kashmiri autonomy, far from being a new issue, is the hoariest topic there is. But when the veteran Kashmiri chief minister Farooq Abdullah lent his somewhat flawed authority to the proposal two weeks ago, it had two rapid consequences.

In the Kashmir valley Muslims, many of whom have long regarded Mr Farooq - also a Muslim - as a stool pigeon of the central government, suddenly began to look at him in a new light. Perhaps this son of the valley soil was not all bad, after all. Meanwhile other states, which likewise have a chronic tendency to feel semi-detached, pricked up their ears.

In Punjab, which borders both Kashmir and Pakistan and which had its own insurgency during the Eighties, a prominent Sikh leader said he wanted the same degree of autonomy for Punjab as Mr Farooq was demanding. Tamil Nadu in the far south and Assam in the north-east also made rumbling noises.

The Indian state is not the most robust entity at the best of times and it was probably a panicky urge to stuff the autonomy genie back in the bottle that led to yesterday's flat "no" from the cabinet. That brings the government's initiatives regarding the Kashmir problem almost back to square one.

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