Kashmir holds its breath for ceasefire

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The Independent Online

The troubled Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir entered the unknown this week as a unilateral ceasefire by Indian government forces - the first in the 11 years of violence in which more than 30,000 people have died - came into force. It coincided with the start on Tuesday of the holy month of Ramadan. The population of the Kashmir valley, the epicentre of the violence, is about 98 per cent Muslim.

The troubled Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir entered the unknown this week as a unilateral ceasefire by Indian government forces - the first in the 11 years of violence in which more than 30,000 people have died - came into force. It coincided with the start on Tuesday of the holy month of Ramadan. The population of the Kashmir valley, the epicentre of the violence, is about 98 per cent Muslim.

At least 13 people died in explosions and gun battles on Tuesday. Paradoxically, Kashmir heaved a sigh of relief, as the valley was braced for far worse. At other critical moments when there has been talk of peace, it has been silenced by much greater violence.

In March, on the eve of the state visit by President Bill Clinton, 36 Sikhs were killed in the village of Chittisinghpura. In August, after an abortive ceasefire agreed with Hizbul Mujahideen, the most important militant group, more than 100 civilians, mostly Hindus, were murdered in atrocities.

Tuesday's violence was not of that order. In the worst incident, a landmine exploded under an Indian Army truck 75km south of Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital, killing four soldiers and wounding 18. A gun battle close to the line of control - the state's de facto border - left four dead, two of them civilians, and five injured.

These are Kashmir's everyday tragedies. The ceasefire, an enigmatic initiative in the midst of a diplomatic freeze between India and Pakistan, survives - so far.

Kashmir is ready for peace. The surge of popular rage and hope that lit up the insurgency died out five or six years ago, and today every Kashmiri agrees they are heartily sick of the violence. The tourist industry is in ruins; unemployment among young men is high; most economic activity is at a standstill; practically every family has suffered casualties. The yearning for peace is palpable - but no one knows where it is to be found.

The militants insist India must do what she promised 50 years ago: hold a plebiscite to decide the state's future, as Jawarhalal Nehru, then the Prime Minister, promised and the United Nations endorsed. Yet after 11 years of bloodshed and repression, only the dreamers believe India has any intention of letting Kashmir go, or that Pakistan can "liberate" the state.

So how stands the hope for peace? Professor Abdul Ghani Bhat, the chairman of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), which speaks for the separatist parties in the state, told The Independent: "The APHC endorses the Indian government's call for a ceasefire with realism, courage and conviction. It means India has started recognising the realities of Kashmir."

He revealed there had been "informal contacts" between members of the APHC and the Indian government, but would not be drawn on the form talks might take. He argued that the "forces of history" were on the side of a settlement, including economic globalisation; the nuclearisation of South Asia, which has made Kashmir a potential nuclear flashpoint; and "the need to banish the threat of war in the region".

The most active militant groups in Kashmir - Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba - have rejected the ceasefire. On Saturday another group, Jiash-e-Muhammad, threatened political parties and other militants with "serious consequences" if they continued to welcome India's initiative.

Yesterday was calmer, with only four fatalities across the state, but the ceasefire continues to look frail. Whatever credibility it still possesses will be forfeited if it is not followed soon by a political initiative. But Professor Bhat spoke for many in Kashmir when he said: "There is no alternative available to a purposive, substantive, result-oriented dialogue."

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