Kashmir: One Cheer for Democracy

It did not snow much in the valley of Kashmir this December, but the cold and the fog were severe. No one seemed to suffer from them more intensely than the soldiers from South India as they huddled behind improvised bunkers of sandbags and tarpaulins at street corners in the capital city, Srinagar. Hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers have been fighting the anti-India insurgency, which was begun by Kashmiri Muslims in 1989– 1990 and which is now supported by several radical Islamist groups based in Pakistan. Things haven’t changed much for these soldiers, although in October the Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi began withdrawing the troops it had mobilized in battle-ready positions along India’s border with Pakistan after blaming Pakistan for a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001.

Indian military threats to Pakistan over the past year forced General Pervez Musharraf to promise to crack down on the radical Islamists who participate in, or support, terrorist attacks in Kashmir and India. But they failed to reduce significantly the violence in Kashmir, which has claimed more than 40,000 lives so far. Indian officials accused Pakistan of deception, and of continuing to provide training and arms to Muslim terrorists. The Kashmiri journalists I spoke to claimed that there were at least three thousand militants, most of them Kashmiris, in the valley, despite the slight fall in the traffic from Pakistan.

When I traveled through the countryside one late December morning, soldiers were patrolling the roads and bare fields in small wary groups. Passing the well-swept courtyard of a large roadside house, I saw four or five soldiers standing in a circle, pointing their guns at a Kashmiri man squatting on the floor. So I was surprised to find, when I reached Gulmarg, an old ski resort west of Srinagar, the newly elected chief minister of Kashmir, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, and his influential daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, introducing a group of travel agents from New Delhi to the possibilities of tourism in the war-ravaged state.

We are trying to be optimistic,” Mehbooba, a lively, articulate woman in her early forties, told me. Later that day, she and her father were traveling to a village to console the survivors of a family attacked by “unidentified gunmen.” Such random killings were unlikely to end soon in Kashmir. But for Mehbooba there was much more ground for optimism than in 2000, when I first met her.

She was on her own then, a divorcée from Delhi, traveling across the state to often very remote and isolated parts, and meeting and reporting on Muslim victims of atrocities committed by Indian security forces. Her party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which she set up in 1999, was now a major political force in the state, and in her father, Mufti, a shrewd politician experienced in both local and national affairs, Kashmiri Muslims appeared to have their first real representative in many years.

Things had begun to look up soon …

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