- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2007

SRINAGAR, India — When Kashmiri political leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq told a crowd in Islamabad, Pakistan, last month that he was calling for an end to armed struggle as a means to bring the region out from under the yoke of Indian rule, he did so at no small personal risk.

Preceding his visit, in what many saw as an unsubtle message against his moderate stance, unknown gunmen attacked his home here in Kashmir’s largest city with automatic weapons fire and grenades. When Mr. Farooq, chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, told Pakistani journalists that “we are not prepared to sacrifice any more of our loved ones,” to a conflict that has claimed at least 40,000 lives, killed either by Indian forces or by Islamic militants, the United Jihad Council, a Pakistan-based coalition of militant groups, issued a statement attacking Mr. Farooq for “cowardice.”

After a similar declaration five years ago, Abdul Ghani Lone, then leader of the Hurriyat Conference, was gunned down by unknown assailants.

Mr. Farooq’s father, Mirwaiz Mohammed Farooq, was slain in a similar manner in May 1990.

“We have to change strategy as far as Kashmir is concerned, because Kashmiri forces are not in a position to drive away Indian forces,” said Mr. Farooq, spiritual leader of Kashmir’s Sunni Muslims, while speeding through the streets of this lakeside city with a heavily armed escort.

“India is able to characterize the Kashmir struggle as a conflict supported by Islamic groups, and the focus on a political settlement is drifting away. We need to shift the focus back to the real issue,” he said.

The roots of the Kashmir conflict go back to Britain’s colonial rule of India and Pakistan. When Pakistan-based tribesmen invaded Kashmir in 1947, seeking to annex it, the maharajah of Kashmir, Hari Singh — a Hindu — sought Indian assistance and signed an agreement to become part of India, allowing Indian troops to rush to his aid.

Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in India, was promised a referendum on the status of the region, but it was never held. A 1948 U.N. Security Council resolution specified that in a plebiscite, Kashmir should only have the option to join either India or Pakistan — blocking independence, a long-cherished goal of many Kashmiris.

After subsequent wars, the border between Indian- and Pakistani-administered Kashmir has remained largely at the present Line of Control.

In 1987, when it seemed legislative elections might be won by a collection of Islamic and secessionist parties called the Muslim United Front (MUF), Indian Kashmir carried out mass arrests of MUF candidates and party workers, provoking pervasive and credible accusations of vote rigging.

When the National Conference-Congress parties claimed victory, many young Kashmiris saw no alternative but armed conflict, and Pakistan offered them training and equipment.

Among groups of the Jihad Council that recently denounced Mr. Farooq is the Hizbul Mujahideen, a group indigenous to Indian-administered Kashmir but based across the border in Pakistani-administered territory. It is led by Syed Salahuddin, a cleric who sought political office in the disputed 1987 elections. The bloodshed since those elections has been pervasive.

In addition to those killed, tens of thousands have been injured and hundreds of thousands, including many Kashmiri Hindus, have been displaced. An estimated 8,000 people were “disappeared” by Indian security forces. Fatal attacks against members of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the National Conference Party (NCP) because of their participation in Indian electoral politics are routine.

Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf recently proposed a four-point formula as the basis of a solution of the Kashmir dispute; for the first time, it eschews any Pakistani claims on Indian-controlled Kashmir or its full independence, focusing instead on the withdrawal of both armies from Kashmir, a joint Indian-Pakistani supervisory mechanism, potential self-governance and neutralizing the Line of Control. Negotiations on the future of the region have been conducted by the two nuclear-armed neighbors since 2003.

“This is a golden opportunity which needs to be taken now, it should not take years,” said Mehbooba Mufti, president of the PDP. The PDP achieved power as part of an elected coalition government in 2002, though the post of chief minister — the Indian equivalent of a governor — is now held by Ghulam Nabi Azad of the ruling national Congress party.

“So many people have been martyred, so many people have lost their lives, so many homes have been destroyed, [that Kashmiris] would like to have something out of it,” said Ms. Mufti. “If we don’t give them something today, the problem will remain.”

Nowhere is the cost of the conflict more visible than in Srinagar, a once-vibrant tourist town now ringed by barbed wire and sandbags, patrolled by Indian soldiers and frequently paralyzed by protests and strikes.

Beyond, in pristine mountain villages the detritus of war is also visible.

In 2000, 36 Kashmiri Sikhs were killed in the village of Chittisinghpora by unknown gunmen, and Indian and local security forces have recently been criticized for what are commonly called “encounter” killings. These involve the arrest and extrajudicial execution of residents, who are buried in unmarked graves and labeled “foreign militants.”

“We are losing Kashmiris every day,” said Mr. Farooq. “We don’t want freedom for a bunch of graves, we want freedom for the people of Kashmir.”


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