Kashmir's rebels step into the open: India's bullying tactics against a nationalist struggle have backfired, writes Tim McGirk from Srinagar

ON A HUGE, grassy field beside a lake in Kashmir more than 20 cricket matches were in lazy progress. Then a gang of youths strode on to the scene. They were dressed not for cricket but for guerrilla warfare, criss-crossed with bandoliers and carrying light machine-guns. None of the games stopped as the armed insurgents passed through, pausing only to watch a batsman flick a ball to the boundary. In Kashmir, insurgency has emerged from the shadows.

More than 500,000 Indian security forces are hunting for Kashmiri rebels in this Himalayan region and more troops are being rushed in. But in many of the towns and villages, the insurgents - who want freedom from India - have not been crushed. They are often in control, attacking army patrols and firing armour-piercing rockets at the army convoys on the mountain roads.

India has blundered often and badly in Kashmir. When the Kashmiris' festering grievances against New Delhi erupted in January 1990, India initially assumed that the Kashmiris - a docile community of 8 million farmers, weavers, lake-going gondoliers and painters of delicate papier-mache items - would cower at the first bullying. They didn't. Appalling pain was then applied by the security forces.

More than 3,500 civilians have been killed in the past three years, many in police custody, according to human rights monitors. Torture has been commonplace and rape routine. In the town of Sopore, troops went berserk and burnt down hundreds of shops and homes, sniping at people as they fled the fires. But instead of uprooting the militancy, the tactics have convinced many Kashmiris to side with the insurgents.

The conflict is one of self-determination, not religion, although both India and neighbouring Pakistan, for various motives, have tried to paint it differently. Most Kashmiris are Muslim, as is the government in neighbouring Pakistan. Pakistan was delighted to train and arm the would-be insurgents who in 1990 began wandering across the Himalayan frontier. India played straight into Pakistan's hands: in 1990, more than 30,000 Hindus were swept out of Kashmir valley so that the Indian security forces could have a clearer shot at the Muslim insurgents, even though relations between the region's Muslims and Hindus had been trouble-free.

Pakistan roused other Muslim nations to aid Kashmiri Muslims in their battle against the Hindu legions. Now Kashmir could easily become the next jihad, or holy war. Already, some Afghan fighters have joined the Kashmiri rebels.

Islamabad also covets Kashmir, and twice since independence from Britain in 1947 India and Pakistan have fought over it. Both countries reportedly possess nuclear arsenals, and the primary worry of Britain and the Clinton administration is that unless the Kashmir dispute is settled swiftly, a nuclear conflict could flare up in South Asia. The US is pressing Islamabad to rein in its own maverick intelligence officers and radical Muslim organisations such as Jamaat-Islami, which are still reportedly aiding the Kashmiri insurgents.

John Malott, a US Assistant Secretary of State, said in New Delhi last week: 'We intend to push, prod, cajole, encourage - pick any verb you want - both countries to reduce tensions.' But as long as the Indians keep violating human rights, many Pakistanis believe they have a moral right to help their Muslim brothers.

Now, the five main Kashmir rebel factions will not settle for anything less than three-way talks between the Kashmiri people, Pakistan and India. The Kashmiris complain that when Britain carved up its old empire they were never given a proper chance to decide between India and Pakistan, and they want to do so now.

Many also favour a third option: independence, if not for greater Kashmir - which once extended from the Tibet border into parts of north-eastern Pakistan and down to Punjab - then at least for the broad valley, ringed with Himalayan peaks, where most of the people of the modern state of Jammu and Kashmir live.

In Delhi, the Congress government of Narasimha Rao rules with a shaky minority. It would fall if it surrendered even a chunk of Kashmir to either Pakistan or the separatists. Today, Kashmir lives under virtual martial law. The state's new governor, an ex-army general named Krishna Rao, says he wants to hold elections soon. Polls have been banned in Jammu and Kashmir, on weak constitutional grounds, since January 1990 and it is ruled directly by Delhi. The general is trying to pound the insurgents into submission while attempting to widen the rift between the pro-Pakistani factions and the separatists. New Delhi's offer of secret talks was rejected by the separatists not long ago. And so far India's grasp on embattled Kashmir is only weakening.

(Photograph omitted)