Kashmir fate hangs by whisker: Indian army's siege of the Muslim shrine of Hazrat Bal could trigger a far deadlier conflict

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AT THE CENTRE of the Kashmir mosque siege lies a single hair of the Prophet Mohammed's beard, encased in a phial of gold and glass. Some Muslims say it has magic properties: move the hair near fire, and the fire dies. In its presence true believers are said to fall into an ecstatic swoon.

It is difficult to overstate the fierce veneration that many of India's 120 million Muslims, and especially the 3 million living in Kashmir, feel towards this holy relic, brought to the Himalayas in 1700 by the Moghul emperor, Aurangzeb.

If anything were to happen to this sacred object the repercussions could prove devastating. If the Kashmiri separatists in the Hazrat Bal shrine in Srinagar, which houses the relic, were to blow it up, if Indian soldiers were to storm the shrine and inadvertently destroy it, the country could be engulfed in a wave of Hindu-Muslim hatred. Relations between India and Muslim states, already strained by the destruction of Ayodhya mosque by Hindu extremists in December 1992, would be stretched to the limit.

India and Muslim Pakistan have twice fought for possession of disputed Kashmir, which straddles their mountainous northern borders. Now both countries are thought to have nuclear arsenals, the stakes are drastically raised. Pakistan's newly elected Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, confirmed that she would persist with the country's nuclear programme, despite pressure from the United States and European governments to dismantle it.

Kashmiris, who are a Muslim majority, believe that when India and Pakistan were partitioned in 1947 by Britain, they were never given the opportunity to decide to which country they should belong. Now, many Kashmiris - including the militants holding the Hazrat Bal mosque - are backing a third option: independence.

The crisis, which claimed 40 lives on Friday and is in its ninth day, began after hundreds crowded into Hazrat Bal mosque for evening prayers. State officials had earlier received intelligence reports that Kashmiri separatists were plotting to steal the prophet's hair and whip up anti-Indian sentiment in the 130-mile long Kashmir valley, by blaming the security forces for the theft.

When the relic disappeared mysteriously in 1963, Kashmiris rioted for 17 days until it was recovered, just as mysteriously, by Muslim clergymen. The relic's authenticity was confirmed when it was given to the prime minister, who duly fainted.

On hearing that locks protecting the relic had been tampered with, members of the Border Security Force cordoned off the mosque, barricading in the militants - whose estimated number ranges wildly between eight and 40 - and 150 men, women and children who were praying inside the mosque. Authorities said they surrounded the Hazrat Bal compound to stop the separatists from spiriting out the relic, but the Kashmiri militants deny this was ever their intention. A more plausible version is that the Indian paramilitary forces had received a tip-off that guerrilla commanders had gone to the mosque and they tried unsuccessfully to flush them out.

What is undeniable is that bands of Kashmiri separatists had been using the Hazrat Bal as 'a liberated zone'. Youths in camouflage and bright new tennis shoes swaggered along the mosque's esplanade, on the shore of Dal lake, with their AK-47s, cocksure that the Indian forces would never dare defile a Muslim sanctuary. The Border Security Force which attacked the mosque, exchanging gunfire with the separatists inside, is notoriously ill-disciplined, and the state authorities swiftly replaced it with more reliable army units. No shots have been fired for the past eight days, but guerrilla snipers keep watch atop the minaret.

Initially, the separatists demanded the army let thousands of Kashmiris go to the mosque for prayers - they could then escape in the crowd. Otherwise, they threatened to blow up the mosque and the relic.

By the second day, their demands hardened. They insisted on safe passage for themselves and the congregation. During the night they had surrounded the main hall's entrances with electrically charged wire. The government remained equally firm: giving safe passage was tantamount to surrendering to the Kashmiri terrorists.

In Delhi, the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, who is facing a by-election battle in four states against the growing Hindu nationalism movement, was too distracted to intervene personally. He told the army to prise out the Muslim militants with as little provocation or damage to the shrine as possible. His Congress party needs the Muslim vote to win and he would certainly lose it if the mosque were destroyed.

The siege could drag on for days or even weeks, depending on the amount of food the separatists have stashed away. There is also running water at long troughs alongside the mosque, for ablutions before prayer. The officer in charge of the siege is Brigadier S P Kanwar, a vain man who has an army video team running after him recording his every quip.

Brig Kanwar gave assurances that his troops will not storm the mosque. The militants raided a police station adjacent to the mosque, and grabbed several sacks full of rice and lentils. Initial press reports also said they had lassoed a cow grazing behind the mosque and slaughtered it. This news was dropped from bulletins for fear of enraging Hindu sensibilities.

For the duration of the siege, most of Srinagar has been blanketed by curfew. There is a soldier or armed policeman for every 16 citizens, and machine-gun emplacements are placed at every major crossroads. Thousands of Kashmiris have been killed by security forces during the past three years of unrest; Friday's outrage has added more than 40 new fatalities to the toll. Throughout the Kashmir valley, tens of thousands of people on Friday poured from their homes and defied a curfew. The marchers failed to reach Hazrat Bal shrine, surrounded by 14,000 soldiers.

At Bijbihara, south of Srinagar, 30,000 people had poured on to the streets after prayers to march to the shrine. The slogan-shouting crowd, including women and children, were fired at when they reached the main road, a few miles short of their destination. The brutality of the security forces halted them. But by firing on unarmed protesters and crushing them under their assault vehicles, the Indian government proved it can only rule Kashmir by oppression. Torture and deaths of prisoners in custody are numbingly routine.

Kashmiris do have qualms about the militants: some groups receive arms and training from Pakistan, which wants India's portion of the land; they have assassinated moderate Kashmiris and extorted money from rich and poor merchants alike. But every day, the Kashmiris' hatred for India grows.

Yet India, for all the international outcry over abuse of human rights in Kashmir, has no intention of letting go of this lush valley ringed by snowy mountains of legendary beauty. 'We'll make life miserable for them,' the Srinagar army corps commander, S Padmanabhan, said, referring to the besieged separatists. Smiling, he added: 'Our patience is infinite.'

(Photographs omitted)