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Published: Saturday, 10/20/2001

Kashmir caught in the crossfire

BY VANESSA GEZARI
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

New Delhi - As the U.S. wages war in the desolate mountains of Afghanistan, India's attention is focused on Kashmir, the Himalayan border state that has been at the heart of rivalry between India and Pakistan for more than 50 years.

Since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, India has watched with growing anxiety as Pakistan nurtures a tentative alliance with the United States. As India and Pakistan vie for American favor, India has repeatedly accused its nuclear archenemy of supporting terrorist forces and training camps in Kashmir.

“Our fight against terrorism did not start Sept. 11,” Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh said during a news conference last month. “We have been fighting this battle alone for years now. Pakistan has spawned, encouraged, and sustained terrorist activities in Kashmir.”

India's outrage surged when suicide bombers stormed the state assembly building in Kashmir's capital, Srinagar, on Oct. 1, killing 38 people and wounding dozens. The Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed initially claimed responsibility for the attack.

“Ironically, [the attack] comes only a day after the President of Pakistan announced on television that Pakistan has no terrorist groups operating from its territory,” Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee wrote in a letter to President Bush soon afterwards.

“Incidents of this kind raise questions for our security which, as the democratically elected leader of India, I have to address in our supreme national interest. Pakistan must understand that there is a limit to the patience of the people of India.”

The lakes and icy peaks of Kashmir, immortalized in Hindi movies and frequented by thousands of tourists before guerrilla violence made them too risky, are of epic significance to both India and Pakistan.

Disputed since 1947, when partition split India into two countries, Kashmir has been the site of 12 years of territorial clashes between the Indian government and militant groups, some of them supported by Pakistan.

Now, with Indo-Pakistani tensions mounting, Kashmir has once again become the tinderbox that could spark a war in South Asia.

The Kashmir conflict is at its tensest point since Pakistani-backed fighters invaded the Kargil region of Indian Kashmir in 1999, prompting months of skirmishes, said Karan R. Sawhny, director of the International Centre for Peace Initiatives, a New Delhi think tank, said “One can visualize the possibility of more active Indian responses,” Mr. Sawhny said. “It is a more dangerous situation than it has been.”

Since the U.S. launched military strikes against the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, Indians are increasingly keen to make their own contribution to the anti-terrorism campaign by punishing Pakistan-backed militants.

“The U.S. can cross half the globe to get Afghanistan. Let India also cross the border and hit terrorist training camps in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir,” said Ajay Shanker, 31, who runs a camera shop in New Delhi. “If this is a global war on terrorism, let us fight it together.”

U.S. officials, eager to preserve the fragile peace between India and Pakistan, have sought to placate leaders on both sides while remaining neutral - and largely silent - on the issue of Kashmir.

Asked at a recent news conference whether he believed Pakistan was behind the suicide attack on the Kashmir state assembly, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell sidestepped the question. “We are against terrorism,” he said. “This was clearly an act of terror.”

Mr. Powell visited both countries last weekend, and he told Pakistani leaders that Kashmir “is central to the relationship” between Pakistan and India. At the same time, he assured Indian leaders that the United States stands “shoulder to shoulder” with India in the fight against terrorism.

Many in India are calling for a tougher response.

During a recent visit to Srinagar, India's deputy home minister said military strikes on guerrilla camps in the Pakistani area of Kashmir were a possibility. Some public opinion polls here have indicated strong support for such measures.

But the task of assigning blame for violence in Kashmir is always complicated. The Jaish-e-Mohammed, which at first claimed responsibility for the Oct. 1 bombing in Srinagar, denied it 24 hours later. Pakistan condemned the Srinagar attack in a statement, saying it was aimed at “maligning the Kashmiris' struggle for their right to self-determination.”

Indeed, many observers believe independence for Kashmir is the only way to achieve lasting peace in the region.

In 1947, as Hindus moved south into India and Muslims traveled north to the newly created nation of Pakistan, Kashmir was caught in the middle with both India and Pakistan seeking to control it. Pakistan believed it had a right to Kashmir because of the territory's Muslim majority, but the maharaja who ruled Kashmir signed a treaty acceding to Hindu-dominated India.

The Indian government has since maintained that the state it calls Jammu and Kashmir is wholly part of India, but Pakistan controls a northern section of the region. While India views insurgents in Kashmir as terrorists, Pakistan sees Muslim guerrillas fighting for control of the territory as “freedom fighters.”

International human rights groups have found fault with both Indian forces and militant groups in Kashmir. Thousands of civilians have been killed in the conflict.

When the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, many Indians believed the fight against terrorism would bring India and America closer together. India hoped the new global agenda would mean American support for its battle against rebels in Kashmir. But Pakistan's location east of Afghanistan made it strategically valuable to the U.S., and Pakistan quickly agreed to open its airspace and military bases to American forces. Pakistan and the United States have a history of alliance - particularly against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s - but in recent years relations between the two countries have been considerably cooler.

These days in India, people are increasingly irritated by what they say is the United States turning a blind eye to Pakistan's support for terrorism - in Kashmir and elsewhere.

“The self-serving amnesia of the West towards Pakistan defies belief,” ran one recent newspaper commentary here, accusing America of engineering a “dizzyingly rapid rehabilitation of Pakistan from the nether zones of a failing near-terrorist state to a darling of the western alliance in this new `war' against terrorism.”

At lunch tables and coffee shops around Delhi, criticism of America's relations with Pakistan have replaced wholehearted support for the United States.

“In a sense, the U.S. silence on [militants in Kashmir] is almost acquiescence,” said Punam Kumar, associate director of the International Centre for Peace Initiatives.

“That's the Indian public opinion - [Pakistan] can keep poking Kashmir, prodding India, because the U.S. interest is at stake. The West is shying away from calling this terrorism. People here are getting a little frustrated with that attitude.”

Whatever India's response to violence in Kashmir may be, it is hard to overestimate the national pride that Indians attach to the disputed territory.

Vanita Kuckreja, a Delhi teacher who spent her honeymoon in Kashmir 22 years ago, remembers a landscape dotted with apple trees, rivers and waterfalls. When tourism was at its height, saffron and walnut peddlers worked the streets of Srinagar and visitors could glide across lakes in old-fashioned skiffs or sit on a hotel porch at twilight, watching plumes of smoke rise from chimneys across the hills.

Ms. Kuckreja describes the Kashmiri conflict in terms of the Ramayana, the great Indian epic. For her, India is the heroic Rama and Kashmir is his wife Sita, who was kidnapped by the demon king Ravana - Pakistan.

“[Kashmir] is one of the most beautiful places - that's why I think it's been grabbed by Pakistan,” she said. “It's just like a beautiful lady being eyed by a lusty man - not because he loves her and wants to give her happiness, but because he wants to possess her.”

Some compare the mood to the way Americans would feel if Mexico sent guerrilla fighters to win control of Texas.

“We reject the ideology on the basis of which Kashmir wants to secede,” Mr. Sawhny said. “[Kashmir] represents the integrity of India's idea of itself.”

Vanessa Gezari is a former Blade staff writer who now lives in India.



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