Troops on alert as despairing Kashmir pins hope on Clinton

A lot of blood was spilled in Kashmir yesterday. I saw some of it myself. In the backyard of a house in a village outside Srinagar I watched a pit being dug in the earth - then the throat of a big ram was slit and its life blood sloshed into the hole.

Yes, it was the Islamic Festival of Eid, commemorating the story of Abraham and Isaac, and for the few days preceding it the Kashmir Valley - population more than 95 per cent Muslim - rediscovered some joy in life, as people thronged the markets to buy special breads and vegetables and clothes. Everywhere nomadic herdsmen mustered their sheep and goats, hoping to find buyers.

The holiday was a rare shaft of light in a scene of desperate gloom. Kashmiris say they have never known things so bad. The state is effectively bankrupt, the streets swarm with Indian soldiers, the level of unemployment is frightening. Terrorist attacks, including recent mass killings in a market and several assaults on military installations, have snuffed out the tourist trade that the Kashmir Valley depended on. A year ago tourism was showing signs of revival, but not any more. There are no political initiatives. The ugly game grinds on.

So Kashmir is hoping against hope that Bill Clinton will make a difference. The American President arrives in India tomorrow. He won't come to Kashmir, he won't meet Kashmir's opposition politicians, and if he so much as utters the word "Kashmir" in the presence of his Indian hosts, he risks provoking a tantrum. But the Kashmiris don't cease to hope. They have little else to rest hope in.

While in Kashmir the butchers were sharpening the knives for Eid, down in the plains equally feverish preparations were being made for the very different festival of Holi. These preparations consisted mostly of laying up large supplies of powder paint. Tomorrow morning Hindus of all ages will drench each other in the colours of the rainbow. If Clinton wished for an authentic Indian welcome, he couldn't have timed it better, though even his remarkable phlegm might be tested by a bucket of saffron-coloured paint in the face on the tarmac of Delhi Airport.

Kashmir is part of India - indissolubly so, say Indian politicians - and for Indian strategists the state's contiguity to Central Asia makes it a vital buffer in the north, as it was in British times. But the Kashmir Valley doesn't feel very Indian. Take something trivial: the weather is so different. On Friday it snowed in Srinagar. This bone-chilling cold belongs to Central Asia. In the plains it is already too hot; they're switching on the ceiling fans. For plains Indians, Kashmir was always delightfully exotic - Switzerland without the expense. Ten years of bloody insurgency have killed off the charm; now it is merely strange, alien.

And take something not too trivial: religion. India, Indians always tell you, is wonderfully pluralistic, and as it is home to about 150 million Muslims, it is the country with the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia. Needing to accommodate a multitude of creeds, secularism was independent India's only possible religion.

But how true is that today? In modern India, secularism has become a mantra, a cliché. The all-embracing Gandhian rhetoric is still on the lips of politicians - even the Hindu Nationalists, who are in power now. But their true programme is creeping, surreptitious Hindu hegemony.

Of course Kashmiris, who feel themselves the victims of Hindu hegemony, don't have a secular leg to stand on. Only 10 years ago they had a sizeable Hindu minority in the form of Kashmiri Pandits, who claim to have lived in the Kashmir Valley for 5,000 years, and who for centuries made up the state's commercial and intellectual élite. In a shameful and largely unnoticed bout of ethnic cleansing, Islamic hardliners in the state contrived by threats and selective assassinations to drive 350,000 of them out of the valley. Fewer than 2,000, it is believed, remain.

Kashmir is needed by India today, but it does not feel loved by India. It feels like an abused stepchild. The mood in the Kashmir Valley - where massively sandbagged bunkers are found on every street corner, where Indian soldiers and paramilitaries patrol every village main street, where the people do not dare to venture out after dark, even in medical emergencies, in case some stressed-out or psychotic soldier shoots them - is like some terrifying colonial endgame.

And all this without even mentioning Pakistan. Bill Clinton's trip to the subcontinent involves a state visit to India, with all available bells and whistles, including an address to a joint session of parliament. Then right at the end, tacked on a little awkwardly, is a "working visit" to Pakistan, lasting a few hours. Perhaps the canniest decision made by Pakistan's new military dictator (sorry, "chief executive") General Pervaiz Musharraf to date, was to send the brilliant and personable Dr Maleeha Lodi to Washington as his new ambassador. The former LSE professor and editor of Pakistan's The News was Benazir Bhutto's ambassador to Washington several years ago (the two are said to be no longer friends). Apparently she told the President: "You've applied your healing touch to so many parts of the world. Here's your chance to apply it to our region." Hey presto, here he is.

The clever money must be on Bill making not the slightest difference - except perhaps to Gen Musharraf's standing at home. As a Mohajir, a migrant to Pakistan from India, his very survival depends on him proving himself 1,000 per cent Pakistani, which means baring iron teeth at India. Gen Musharraf knows this well. The day after his coup against the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif last October, there were no tanks or troops on the streets - the only signs of change were large banners strung up outside parliament, demanding that India vacate Kashmir. Gen Musharraf has said he refuses to talk to India about anything else. To keep the issue bubbling he may risk another war.

Mr Clinton may get some warmed-over mutton in Pakistan; if he can keep his suit free of paint in India he will be doing well. Any more palpable gains from this trip will qualify him as a solid-gold political genius - with a healing touch that could raise the dead.

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