The Temperature Cools in Kashmir

Is change coming to the bitterly contested Jammu and Kashmir region, the decades-old flashpoint between Pakistan and India? With India's tk-week electoral process in full swing, all eyes are turned toward the region where voters, appearing less deterred than usual by calls from separatist groups, went to the polls last week in the fourth day of national voting under the watchful gaze of security forces determined to keep violence to a minimum.

Despite years of attempts by militants and separatists to stop the elections altogether, by the end of the week, media organizations said voting appeared to be slightly ahead of the 2004 pace, going against a call by the separatist group Hurriyat Conference to skip the polls. As many as 6,000 protesters turned up in the main city of Srinigar Friday, led by Separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, with about 30 injured as protesters threw stones at police.

Omar Abdullah, the chief minister, however, hailed what he said was an actual decline in violence and called attention to what he said was Pakistan's contribution to the ‘remarkable' drop in bloodshed in the volatile region in recent years. Nearly 50,000 people have died on both sides in the two-decade-old Islamic insurgency although violence has begun to subside since peace talks between India and Pakistan in 2004.

"I will call it remarkable," Abdullah told Agence France Press. "It would be impossible for the levels of violence to be where they are if there wasn't some amount of influence being brought to bear from Pakistan."

There appears to be another new element in the political process this year among the separatists. Sajjad Lone, a prominent 42-year-old leader of the Jammu and Kashmir People's Conference, has switched gears to become the first major separatist to stand, in the Baramulla constituency in northern Kashmir, saying he wanted to take his struggle to the Lok Sabha, or parliament in New Delhi. The Baramulla and Ladakh constituencies are scheduled to go to the polls later this week. It remains to be seen where the electorate will go.

"Fighting elections is a change of strategy, not ideology," Lone told a news conference. "I will contest polls with a commitment to use this mechanism as a method to represent the voice of the Kashmiri people and to take the strength and merits of our aspirations to the central stage of India."

His change of view, he told reporters, is largely due to the unsuccessful attempts of the Kashmiri political leadership to resolve matters and involve the global community. Lone has promised to represent the state in the Indian capital to present its case.

He faces formidable challenge from the Hurriyat, with support from elements in Pakistan which cannot be discounted. According to latest reports, the strike called by chairman of hard line faction of Hurriyat Conference Syed Ali Shah Geelani, impacted voter turnout in Srinagar, but not fatally.

None of this means peace is coming to a region where the communal, nationalist and political divisions are so deep. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the separatists increasingly fear the risk of political isolation, with their call for freedom (azaadi) for Kashmir appearing to cut less and less ice as new local young leadership under Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti look towards re-focusing on development, tourism and growth.

Mehbooba, 47, the president of the People's Democratic Party was elected leader of the PDP, the largest opposition party in the 87-member Jammu and Kashmir Assembly in 2004, with a vow to play the role of what she called "constructive opposition." The government is led by Omar, who heads the alliance of the National Conference and Congress parties. Abdullah's good personal equations with Gandhi scion Rahul Gandhi have helped the coalition.

December 2008 state elections were hailed as a success with a 62 percent turnout and a message interpreted by analysts that the of the region are tired of militancy and separatists' calls for an independent Kashmir and want to be part of mainstream development.

Unlike the separatists, the National Conference has a history of backing the Indian government for armed action against insurgency and has been urging New Delhi to resume the peace process with Pakistan, derailed after the Mumbai terror attacks.

Although the separatists have organized themselves under the umbrella of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and choose to remain out of the electoral process, major differences have been cropping up. The hard-liners argue that per the 1950s UN Security Council resolution ‘no elections can either change the nature of the dispute or affect adversely the future dispensation of Jammu and Kashmir.' They say any electoral participation is a compromise that requires acceptance of the legitimacy of the Indian rule in Kashmir.

Lone, a handsome, charismatic leader who as late as 2008 was leading the separatist charge, says he decided to fight elections in order to spread the idea of ‘Achievable Nationhood.' He says that the change in the view is largely due to the unsuccessful attempts of the Kashmiri political leadership to resolve matters and involve the global community.

According to latest reports, the strike called by the chairman of hard line faction of Hurriyat Conference Syed Ali Shah Geelani, has impacted voter turnout in Srinagar, a separatist stronghold, this week. Nonetheless, even at 24 percent, voting in Srinagar was low but better than the 18.7 percent and 12 percent in 2004 and 1999 respectively.

All prominent separatist leaders including Syed Ali Shah Geelani, chairman of moderate faction Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and JKLF Chairman Mohammad Yaseen Malik have been put under arrest.

The decades of violence and strife have marred what is one of the most beautiful regions in India (or independent country, for that matter), situated at the base of the Himalayan Mountains and bordering China. Formed of a one-time principality, the Kashmir Valley is widely known as "paradise on earth," for its lakes and its gorgeous mountain landscape. Tens of thousands of Muslim and Hindu flock to Jammu every year for its plethora of shrines.

Communal Situation

It was these shrines that over the last year have brought into focus the communally surcharged atmosphere. Kashmir witnessed intense communal unrest between Hindus and Muslims, highlighting the divisions between the Muslim dominated Valley and Hindu majority Jammu. The riots commenced around mid-June when the state government decided to hand over state land to the board, which oversees the Shri Amarnath shrine. The decision was in contravention to a Supreme Court ruling.

Located in a Himalayan cave 12,000 sq feet above sea level, about 80 km away from Srinagar, the holy Amarnath site is a large icicle said to represent the Hindu God of destruction and rebirth – Lord Shiva.

The handing over of state land was intended to enable the shrine board to build facilities for the pilgrims, who have to walk more than 10 miles to visit the shrine. However, a perception was created that the economic activity generated due to the pilgrimage, which is currently one of the major sources of income for Muslims, would after the ‘sale' be diverted and the pilgrimage would become an exclusively Hindu affair.

In the valley, extremist elements fanned the fire of separatism and called for boycott of the polls, which are due to be held in October. In the past, systematic ethnic cleansing in the Valley has resulted in Hindu Kashmir Pandits being hounded out of the state.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached by sidsri@yahoo.com)