As Weather Turns, India Tries To Thaw Kashmir Chill17 January 2011
Wall Street Journal
Srinagar: In what seems like a sign that the Indian government has heard one of the major complaints made by Kashmiris-that they live in a militarized zone and are subject to frequent checks-the country’s home secretary said on Friday that the Himalayan region could see a major reduction in troops.“The strength of the security forces would come down by 25% as soon as possible depending on the ground situation,” said G.K Pillai in New Delhi, expressing optimism that violence in the state had reduced in the past few months. There are several reasons why Kashmir is back on the agenda, after vanishing around October, soon after the government appointed three non-partisan peace negotiators to speak to people across the region, and as corruption began to take center stage as the key issue facing New Delhi. On Wednesday, Margaret Sekaggya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, is supposed to be in Kashmir to suss out the human rights situation there, and it would probably help if the government is seen to be taking steps to address grievances there ahead of the visit. Meanwhile, the youth wing of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party is marching for “unity” from West Bengal to Kashmir, Republic Day. On Monday, they’re supposed to be in Kanpur, in Uttar Pradesh, half way through the trip. They plan to arrive in Srinagar on Republic Day, and to plant a flag in Lal Chowk. The BJP’s arrival in Kashmir could trouble the waters, and the government seems to be readying its oil ahead of that as well. And finally, there’s the weather. Mr. Pillai’s statement on troop reduction came as New Delhi celebrated a rash of festivals that mark the official end of winter. Already the air in the Indian capital isn’t quite as nippy as it’s been for a month. It’s been wintry and snowy in the Himalayan region, and the streets of Srinagar have been much calmer than they were in the summer. For months last year Kashmiris took to the streets almost daily, pelting stones at security forces. The protests resulted in clashes with troops, leading to the deaths of over 100 civilians. The Indian government’s reaction was to hold a lot of meetings and talk about rescinding a controversial law that protects troops from prosecution. But tensions remained high and in September, the government appointed three non-partisan peace negotiators to talk to people from across the state and report back. As the weather becomes milder in Kashmir as well, it’s possible that last summer’s flare-ups, based on resentments that haven’t been resolved, could heat up again. And maybe that’s why we’re starting to hear anew about troop reduction and other measures called for by Kashmiris. Mr. Pillai on Friday also said plans were also underway to allow people from the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to cross over and meet relatives in India’s state of Jammu and Kashmir through multiple-entry permits to be issued for six months. On Thursday, the state’s chief minister Omar Abdullah, who is allied with the Congress-led government, addressed a rally in capital Srinagar, where separatist sentiment is strong, and appealed for calm, saying “dialogue is the only way out.” And the state police launched a recruitment drive last week to address the unemployment problems of the youth in the region, according to television reports. Some of the steps appear to be in step with what the peace negotiators have suggested so far-releasing protesters who have no serious charges against them, permitting peaceful protests and increasing employment opportunities. They’re expected to submit a final report with other suggestions within three months. Some Kashmiris said it was important for the number of troops to lessen in order to restore peace. “Reducing security forces in the valley is a welcome move as the mind of the youth is most damaged seeing troops on their doorsteps everyday,” said Amjad Naqshbandhi, a tour operator in Srinagar. But a political expert was more cautious, noting that so far, it’s just an announcement. “The significance of the announcement will depend on how the government translates this into action,” said Srinath Raghavan, a senior fellow at New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research.