New Delhi: A land row in Kashmir may have achieved what years of militant violence largely failed to do—fuse Muslim separatist sentiment into mass protests that seriously challenge Indian rule and South Asia’s stability.
The dispute over land for a Hindu shrine trust, Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, and the killing of 21 Muslim protesters by police has galvanized separatists after years of relative stability in Kashmir that saw some hope for India negotiating a political solution.
“All this crisis in Kashmir has played into the hands of the separatists,” said Ashok Mehta, a retired army commander and security expert.
On guard: Protesters shout slogans atop the wreckage of a police vehicle they burnt in Srinagar on Thursday. A man was killed when police opened fire on a crowd that marched in defiance of a curfew in the city. Photograph: Dar Yasin / AP
“It is all a huge setback for a political solution to Kashmir. We are back to where we were many years ago.”
Unsteady progress between India and Pakistan over Kashmir also might have been dashed by the biggest demonstrations in Kashmir in two decades.
Indeed, some fear Kashmir will become a diplomatic football once again between the two nuclear rivals, with New Delhi unsure of a new civilian government in Islamabad that it perceives is in a dangerous vacuum.
Kashmir has been racked by militant violence since 1989, when an insurgency against Indian rule erupted.
Around 43,000 people have died but the past few years had seen some progress.
State elections in 2002 were regarded as largely fair despite a separatist boycott and violence. Insurgency attacks fell in the past few years.
Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf made some peace proposals in 2006 that were seriously discussed in India.
“Looking back, it seems like one missed opportunity,” said Siddharth Varadarajan, diplomatic editor of The Hindu newspaper.
“One lesson is that the Indian government cannot just allow Kashmir to drift along. There has been a level of simmering resentment that the government has been unwilling to deal with.”
A government with eyes on 2009 elections might do just that—drift along and hope protests fizzle.
For the most part, Kashmir is not an issue for voters in the rest of India.
Some analysts predict a doomsday scenario, with more protests leading to the break-up of the state, split between the Hindu-majority Jammu region and the mainly Muslim Kashmir valley.
Others predict mass protests forcing the government to appease separatists with some negotiations, from issues such as tentative demilitarization to relaxation of border controls.
Experts say perceived Indian oppression of protests could spark tension between Pakistan and India as well.
“The most worrying issue is Kashmir seems to be returning to be a point of tension with Pakistan,” said Varadarajan.
He pointed to a war of words this week between Pakistan and India, with New Delhi criticizing Islamabad for meddling in its internal affairs after a call for UN intervention.
With Pakistan seen as in limbo, with Musharraf under pressure to resign or face impeachment by the new government, the focus for peace might now fall on Kashmir itself rather than the two uneasy South Asian neighbours.
“Protests have changed the whole parameters of the conflict,” said Sajjad Lone, leader of the main separatist alliance All Parties Hurriyat Conference, which rejects militant violence. “The peace process was for years seen through the eyes of Pakistan and India. Kashmir was confined to being an ornament. There is increased relevance being given to Kashmiris.”
That new focus could fall on state elections which are due later this year.
The state government is leaderless and the first step to a peaceful solution might be free and fair elections.
Separatists want elections boycotted. Mainstream parties that participate in elections are overshadowed by separatists.
To make matters worse for New Delhi, once-split separatists have shown some unity. Indeed, one political winner seems to be hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, for years seen as marginalized.
“Kashmir’s tipping point could be the election,” said Mehta.
“India’s claim to legitimacy in Kashmir rests on the holding of free and fair elections. The last election had more than 40% participation. What happens if a separatist boycott leads to 7-8% participation?”
It would mean, some say, a new political scene in Kashmir. “What we have seen in Kashmir is the start of non-violent and mass protests. A new generation has taken over,” Lone said.