Rao at bay over Kashmiri rebel


in New Delhi

If there is any man in India that the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, would like to see captured or killed, it is an Afghan gunman named Mast Gul who is hiding in the mountains of Kashmir.

Mr Gul crossed the Hindu Kush to help Kashmiri Muslims in their five- year long secessionist battle against the Indian security forces. The Indians claim Mr Gul is a hireling of Pakistan which also has designs on Kashmir.

Mr Gul is the most hunted man in the Kashmir valley, and his capture might help Mr Rao fend off angry calls for his resignation over the latest Kashmir crisis: the destruction of a holy Muslim shrine in Chrar-e-Sharif during a firefight last week between the army and Muslim guerrillas led by Mr Gul.

For two days running, parliament has lambasted Mr Rao for the Indian army's failure to protect one of Kashmir's most sacred shrines. Worse still, in the eyes of many Delhi politicians, was that Mr Gul shot his way out of the flames and escaped, even though Chrar-e-Sharif was sealed off by over 1,500 troops.

Slightly injured, Mr Gul nevertheless was able to dispatch from his hideout somewhere in the countryside a taped message, saying: "It is the Indian army's wishful thinking that they have killed me. I am alive by the grace of Allah and will continue to fight."

The authorities claim Mr Gul deliberately set off explosives to destroy the Chrar-e-Sharif mosque so rebels could blame the fire on the Indian security forces. Whatever the truth, most Kashmiris do indeed accuse the army of destroying the shrine and more than 1,500 houses and shops surrounding it. A shoot-to-kill curfew, now in its sixth day, in the state capital Srinagar has failed to halt Kashmiri protesters from torching Hindu temples and government buildings in retaliation for the loss of their shrine.

In parliament in Delhi, the opposition leaders, the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, backed down from their threatened no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister, but Mr Rao gave the impression of a man with his back to the wall. His control over his own party has slipped so far that Congress rebels are holding a rally in Delhi tomorrow demanding he resign as party leader.

Mr Rao's ministers tried to deflect criticism away from him with the dangerous tactic of threatening Pakistan. India accuses its neighbour of sending in "foreign mercenaries" such as Mr Gul to destabilise Kashmir. The Railway Minister, Jaffer Sharief, said: "India has the legitimate right to teach a lesson to Pakistan, if required even by waging a war."

In Pakistan, the Foreign Minister, Sardar Asef Ahmed Ali, answered India's menaces in equally belligerent tones. "Pakistan cannot but take seriously the repeated threats of war," he warned.

On Tuesday, Mr Rao announced that India was pressing ahead with the development of its Prithvi missile, capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, but he added that India would never start a conflict with Pakistan.

Mr Rao intends to hold state elections in Jammu-Kashmirwithin the next two months. Many experts think this is folly. Hindus and Buddhists in the Jammu and Ladakh regions of Kashmir would vote, but the state's majority Muslims would refuse. They are demanding a referendum to decide whether Kashmir should join Muslim Pakistan, remain with India or become independent.