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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.”1 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 after the Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi announced elections to Kashmir’s legislature in September and October 2002. The elections were partly meant to publicize India’s democratic and secular credentials before the world and strengthen its moral right over the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir, which Islamic Pakistan has claimed for itself since the partition of India along religious lines in 1947. The Hindu nationalists hoped to appear to be offering democracy to Kashmiris; they also expected to expose Pakistan, which is currently a close ally of the United States, as a sponsor of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in the region.

The elections turned out to be a much more ambiguous exercise. They were mostly fair—a first for Kashmiris after several absurdly rigged occasions in recent decades. But the political choices they offered to Kashmiri Muslims were limited—democracy without civil liberties. Two of the best-known secessionist leaders in Kashmir, Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Yaseen Malik, who were arbitrarily arrested early last year, remained in Indian prisons. Other opposition leaders continued to face restrictions on travel both within and outside the valley. Not unexpectedly, the Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella organization of parties that advocate independence or integration with Pakistan for Kashmir, refused to participate in an election sponsored by India, despite strong pressure from the Indian government and from diplomatic intermediaries from the US and EU. This left mostly pro-India parties and candidates to compete: the ruling NC (National Conference), which is an ally of the Hindu nationalist BJP, the Congress, and Mehbooba’s party, the PDP, a party of mostly Kashmiri Muslims that advocates talks with anti-India militants and promises to stop human rights abuses by Indian security forces.

Close to eight hundred people were killed in the weeks leading up to the elections, most of them by Kashmiri or Pakistani militants opposed to all India-backed initiatives in Kashmir. Few Kashmiri Muslims turned out to vote in Srinagar, or in the North Kashmir towns of Sopore and Baramulla. In other Muslim-majority towns, the polling rarely went above 30 percent. There were stray cases of Indian soldiers forcing Muslims to vote. But in the villages the turnout was often spontaneous, with women leading the lines of voters, and high—close to 55 percent, 10 percent higher than the overall turnout.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee claimed that the “people of Kashmir have made their wishes known in these elections that they will be with us at any cost.” But even the relatively small number of Kashmiri Muslims who voted did not seem to be expressing their preference for either India or Pakistan. They rejected the pro-BJP National Conference, whose leader, Farooq Abdullah, stridently advocated a hard line against anti-India insurgents and Pakistan but was as often to be found in Delhi’s cocktail parties as in Kashmir. He recently memorialized his government’s reputation for corruption, callousness, and extravagance by spending millions of dollars on the construction of a golf course in Srinagar. The Muslims voted largely for candidates who promised in their election manifestoes to rein in Indian security forces, begin unconditional dialogue with the militants, and release the allegedly hundreds of people illegally held in prisons. Abdullah’s ally in the federal government, the BJP, which has traditionally done well in the Hindu-dominated region of Jammu, managed to win only one seat.

However, several parties shared the anti-incumbent vote; no single party emerged to replace the National Conference, which managed to retain only twenty-eight out of the fifty-seven seats it held previously in the eighty-seven-seat legislature. Mufti Mohammed Sayeed now heads an uneasy coalition, composed almost equally of his own party, the PDP, which has fifteen seats, and the Congress, which has twenty. Mufti’s own position is shaky. He is seen by Hindu nationalist hard-liners as being “soft” on anti-India militants. In 1989, he was the home minister in a coalition federal government in New Delhi when militants kidnapped his younger daughter, Rubaiya, and demanded as ransom the release of their colleagues from prison. The Indian government complied. Huge crowds in Srinagar celebrated the release of the militants, who promptly disappeared into Pakistan. These celebrations were among the first big public displays of Kashmiri disaffection with India.

Mufti (as he is called in Kashmir) will be anxious not to be seen as surrendering again to militants. At the same time, he is doubtful that brute force can alone defeat the insurgency, which he thinks feeds off the rage and frustration Kashmiri Muslims feel toward their Indian or India-backed rulers. “Militancy in Kashmir,” he said, “is sustained by the people.” He wishes to offer what he calls a “healing touch” to Kashmiris tormented by a decade of harsh Indian counterinsurgency operations. He hopes, he told me, to open talks with the militants, especially the Hizbul Mujahideen group, which, though based in Pakistan, is composed mostly of Kashmiris. Mufti told me he also wants to withdraw harsh new antiterrorist laws imposed in 2001 by the federal government; make security forces more accountable; initiate an economic recovery through investment by American and European companies; and create new jobs for young Kashmiris.

All this may prove to be a tall order. But Mufti at least appears to want to improve the human rights situation in Kashmir, where extrajudicial killings, torture, and kidnappings by Indian security forces are commonplace. In doing so, he probably seeks to woo Muslims away from their sympathies for militants, and to render irrelevant the secessionist parties and other pro-Pakistan groups that have so far thrived on the widespread Muslim distrust for India and Kashmir’s India-backed rulers. If he succeeds, he is expected to call for fresh elections, and strengthen his party’s position in the legislature. But the support of Kashmiri Muslims alone is unlikely to take him far. He will need a great deal of cooperation from the federal government; he will also have to appease the anti-India militants into some kind of cease-fire.

His and his party’s swift emergence in Kashmiri politics has already provoked much speculation. A well-known lawyer in Srinagar tried to assure me that Mufti and his daughter were the creation of Indian intelligence agencies that wanted to put a moderate face on repressive Indian rule in Kashmir. A report in the Indian newsmagazine Frontline hinted that pro-Pakistan militants had supported Mufti’s election campaign. There is no convincing evidence for either view. Professor Abdul Ghani Bhat, the philosophically minded chairman of the secessionist Hurriyat Conference, explained to me that it was the fate of chief ministers of Kashmir to be despised by their subjects in Kashmir and distrusted by their masters in New Delhi.

The prospect of new jobs for Kashmiris did not appear to arouse much enthusiasm on the part of Professor Bhat. When I met him in Srinagar this December, he was leaning against the wall in a corner of a large, bare room in his house and worrying, in the abstract way of academics, about “identity.” Kashmiris had suffered, he claimed, because of their separate identity. No amount of economic progress could compensate for the damage to the Kashmiri identity, or fulfill the “spiritual aspirations” of Kashmiris.

The only hope, Professor Bhat unexpectedly said, lay with the United States, which was profoundly concerned about the possibility of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, and so likely to force the two countries to solve the Kashmir dispute soon. He appeared wounded when I said that it was unlikely that the Bush administration, preoccupied as it is with al-Qaeda, Iraq, and now North Korea, would pay much attention to Kashmir anytime soon. He then began to denounce, in highly literary English, the “grocers and shopkeepers” from American and European embassies who had tried to persuade him to participate in the recent elections. He said Kashmiris wanted not another election but a referendum, of the kind the United Nations had held in East Timor. He referred to the various UN resolutions on Kashmir that India had ignored. He claimed that Muslims were being discriminated against everywhere for no other reason than that they were Muslims. He then proposed that India and Pakistan ignore the grocers and shopkeepers from America and Europe and solve the Kashmir problem on their own.

  1. 1

    The phrase “unidentified gunmen” is used by Kashmiris to hint that the killers could have been either militants or local mercenaries hired by Indian security forces. In contrast, politicians and journalists in India use the much less ambiguous term “terrorists.”

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