- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 24, 2002

SRINAGAR, India Hope, frail as the morning mist over the valley's fabled Lake Dal, is rising in Kashmir with the inauguration of a new state government pledged to end the alienation behind an insurgency that has claimed 33,000 lives since 1989.
No one yet has begun to replace the peeling paint or take down the vacancy signs from the hundreds of forlorn houseboats that once drew tourists from around the world, or to roll back the barbed wire and sandbags that have turned this Himalayan paradise into a military camp.
Indeed, with at least 450 persons killed during an election period that ran from Aug. 22 until Oct. 6, it will be some time before visitors again fill the marble hallways of the former maharajah's palace that is now the Grand Palace Hotel, nestled between the lake and a mountain crest.
But throughout the Vale of Kashmir, people are saying that, for the first time in their lives, they have seen a party they voted for come to power in a free election.
And that, after decades of frustration, has given them a chance to believe that the system just might improve their lives.
"I would greet [the election result] as an opening, an opening for a bicycle ride," said Firdous Syed, a former militant who now serves as president of the Kashmir Foundation for Peace and Developmental Studies.
"If you know your people, you can transform it into a truck ride. But if [the new government] does not behave right, feel the pulse of the people, you will see Kashmir transformed into a place where you cannot even crawl."
The state elections, conducted for security reasons in four stages over the space of two weeks, were by almost all accounts a model of fairness. Even more remarkable, they drew a participation rate of almost 45 percent despite the threat of violence and a boycott by several pro-independence parties.
Empowered voters threw out the National Conference (NC), a dynastic family-led party that had dominated Kashmir politics since Indian independence in 1947 but was seen as having become self-indulgent and remote from the people.
Defeated First Minister Farooq Abdullah, a golfing enthusiast, recently used public funds to build a world-class, tournament-quality golf course with magnificent views of Lake Dal. In an impoverished state in desperate need of fresh tourism, the course operates as a private club open to just 200 members.
Replacing the NC is a coalition led by the Congress Party, still a force in all parts of India, and the newly formed People's Democratic Party (PDP) under the leadership of 66-year-old lifelong Kashmir resident Mufti Mohammed Sayeed.
Mr. Sayeed, who was sworn in as first minister Nov. 2 amid violence that left 16 dead, brings a colorful history to the post.
He had served only a week as home minister in a Congress Party-led national government in New Delhi in 1989 when Kashmiri militants kidnapped his then-22-year-old daughter, Rubaiya, demanding the release of several imprisoned colleagues.
Despite signs that the militants were about to release the young woman, Mr. Sayeed succumbed to their demands, sparking celebrations throughout the valley that many consider the starting point of the present uprising.
Another daughter, Mehbooba, 38, is widely credited with masterminding the mufti's successful campaign platform, which called for unconditional talks with all parties, ending the worst excesses of the Indian security forces, releasing many prisoners and financially compensating the victims of the violence including the families of slain militants.
The program served not only to wrest votes from the better-organized NC and Congress parties, but also to attract supporters of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a loose coalition of 23 parties opposed to Indian rule in Kashmir, which boycotted the election.
Even the Hurriyat leaders found themselves unable to resist rooting for PDP candidates as they watched the election returns roll in on television, according to Mr. Syed, the former militant.
The new state government "will make a lot of difference," acknowledged Umer Farooq, the leader of one Hurriyat faction. "The difference is that Farooq Abdullah was doing a lot of things for his own benefit. The mufti is not that kind of man. He tries to improve our nation."
Across India's political spectrum, there is an almost universal willingness to give Mr. Sayeed's government a chance to see if its policies will work.
Sonia Gandhi, national president of the Congress Party, agreed to let the mufti head the new government even though her party won 20 seats in the new legislature, compared with 16 for the PDP. Many of those seats are in Jammu, which lies south of the Kashmir Valley but is part of the same state Jammu and Kashmir.
Congress also agreed to go along with much of the PDP program, including:
Unconditional dialogue with "members of the legislature and other segments of public opinion."
The release of all detainees held on "nonspecific" charges or not charged with serious crimes.
The investigation of all cases of custodial killings and violations of human rights.
A comprehensive "relief and rehabilitation package" for the families of victims of the violence, including preference for government jobs.
Special plans to rehabilitate former militants who give up violence.
cAn outreach program for "the children, widows and parents of the deceased militants."
The assimilation into the regular police of the despised Special Operation Group, an anti-terrorism force blamed for the disappearance in custody of more than 30 persons this year and more than 300 altogether.
A refusal to implement Draconian measures permitted under the new federal Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA).
Even the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which holds power in New Delhi, seems satisfied with the mufti's victory because of the increased international prestige it has gained by administering free and fair elections in Kashmir.
"I am not overly worried about the [PDP-Congress] program," said a senior government official interviewed at his office in New Delhi. "The Congress is a part of this coalition with greater numbers than the PDP. We will make mincemeat of them in 10 state elections next year if they do anything too extreme.
"Even today, the position is that we will talk to the elected representatives," the official said.
"We have a two-pronged approach: We want to encourage this government to go for economic development on something like a war footing.
"Secondly, if they want to talk to us about greater autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir we are willing to do this. Meanwhile the counterinsurgency campaign will continue."
One of the few to say the PDP plan is not only soft on terrorism, but soft-headed, is Arun Shauri, the federal minister responsible for selling off state-owned enterprises and even he emphasizes that he speaks only for himself.
"If they carry through such steps, it will be suicidal for them and very harmful for the country," he said in an interview. "If they empty the jails, [the terrorists] will be confirmed in what they have been doing and will do more of it."
The success or failure of the new program will depend largely on the performance of the security forces, which have suffered 3,500 dead in the insurgency, more than 130 of them since the elections were declared in late August.
Director General of Police Ashok Shuri was grim but careful not to criticize the mufti's program in an interview.
"We are there to implement the law of the land, and we shall implement whatever law we are asked to implement," he said. "If there is less alienation" because of the new policies, "then that is a welcome step."
The comfort level with Mr. Sayeed's promises is somewhat higher in the army, which already has a sophisticated public relations program designed to win over the hearts and minds of Kashmiri residents.
"People are cautiously hopeful about the new government's people-friendly policies and waiting with bated breath," said Lt. Gen. V.T. Patankar, the commander of Indian forces in Kashmir, who interrupted a briefing to attend a ceremony for a group of young Kashmiri women who had been touring the country at army expense.
"By killing militants and terrorists you cannot end militancy and terrorism. We want to empower the people so they can undertake some development work," added Brig. Ranbir Chhabra, an aide to Gen. Patankar.
None of this, however, takes into account the role in the insurgency of foreign "jihadis" who sneak across the border from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir determined to wage holy war in defense of the valley's Muslims never mind that the long-ruling National Conference, like the PDP, is a virtually all-Muslim party.
These guerrillas, often schooled in the same Pakistani "madrassas" that gave rise to al Qaeda and the Taliban, are part of "an Islamic movement that has nothing to do with local issues," said Mr. Syed, the former militant.
Indian estimates as to how many of the insurgents come from outside the valley range from a high of 80 percent to a low of 40 percent; Pakistani officials say only a handful, if any, make it across the mountains from Pakistan-held Kashmir.
Indian security forces say about 56 percent of those killed in recent months came from outside, including a handful of Afghans and an occasional Arab. Because the intruders are more likely to fight to the death, the actual number involved may be lower than that.
However, U.S. Ambassador Robert Blackwill was quoted recently saying the problem in Kashmir "is cross-border terrorism. It's virtually now, in my judgment, entirely externally driven."
The hope now, security officials said, is that the public will become less willing to provide food and shelter to the foreign militants and more willing to report their presence in their villages to the army and police despite the risk of being killed as an informer.
"The people here have less and less support for the terrorists," said Brig. Chhabra. "They cannot exist without support from the people. Particularly after the elections, this support is going to reduce even further."
Girish Chandra Saxena, the federally appointed governor of Jammu and Kashmir, said the Kashmiri people had already demonstrated their courage by turning out to vote in large numbers in defiance of the gunmen.
"People saw that their vote matters. Their faith in democratic processes has become very much consolidated," he said during an interview at his residence overlooking Lake Dal, another legacy of the maharajah's time.
He said the elections will improve the security situation "if a fairly broad-based ruling establishment emerges and it is receptive to the legitimate sentiments and aspirations of the people. It will depend a lot on the parties working together as a team and carrying along the people.
"What is at stake in Kashmir is the whole basis of our [Indian] society: pluralism, tolerance, democracy. This is the glue that holds the whole thing together," he said as a rosy sunset settled into the mountains behind the flat-calm lake.
"There was a perception that there had been rigging of elections in the past, but this was very different. Even the defeated candidates did not complain. This was, I think, the cleanest election that India has witnessed in any state."


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