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Despite Peace Talks With Pakistan, India Maintains Tight Grip on Kashmir


There has been a slow but steady thaw in relations between India and Pakistan in the past two years, with improvements in intergovernmental communication and cross-border transportation. But there has been little progress on what both sides concede is the most challenging obstacle to fully normalized relations: the region of Kashmir, which both countries claim as their own. Raymond Thibodeaux reports from Srinagar, the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir.

It is just after four in the morning on Srinagar's Dal Lake, and the prayers have started at a nearby mosque, just as they do every morning. Thousands of birds chatter in the trees, as if in competition with the human worshippers. It is not hard to imagine Kashmir as the heaven on earth touted by the numerous billboards aimed at tourists.

But for the more than six million people living in Indian-controlled Kashmir, this is a far cry from a paradise. Nearly half a million Indian army troops are fanned out across the region to combat an 18-year rebellion by armed groups seeking either an independent Kashmir or one ruled entirely by Pakistan. Some of the separatists are home grown, others have crossed over from Pakistani Kashmir.

Kashmir's roads and markets are strewn with checkpoints, razor wire and sandbagged bunkers. Soldiers patrol the streets with assault rifles and flack jackets. Many of Srinagar's movie theaters and its only indoor sports stadium have been converted to barracks.

Some Kashmiris say it is too much, especially now that there has been a significant decrease in violence in the region.

They include Mehbooba Mufti, president of the Peoples Democratic Party in Kashmir, which is pushing the Indian government to withdraw its troops.

"Today I don't understand, when the situation is much, much better, why the reduction of troops is not taking place," said Mehbooba. "Withdrawal of troops can be the biggest confidence-building measure as far as the people of Jammu and Kashmir are concerned."

The region, which has a predominately Muslim population, was divided between India and Pakistan five decades ago. Bitterness over the division has led the two countries to war twice, and nearly set off a third war. But over the past few years, New Delhi and Islamabad have worked to improve relations, although they have made no progress on the Kashmir dispute.

Many people here complain of almost daily harassment at the hands of the Indian army. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, considered one of Kashmir's more moderate separatist leaders, says the peace talks between Islamabad and New Delhi have done little to improve the lives of the ordinary Kashmiri.

"He's still searched by the army. He's still taken down from the bus," he said. "His house is still searched. His cattle and his farm is still occupied by the army."

The army, for its part, sees itself as a protection force that has returned some stability to a region racked by nearly two decades conflict.

If they have not gained the trust of Kashmir's population, some soldiers say, it is not for lack of trying.

The Indian army provided rescue and recovery teams after the October 2005 earthquake that struck Kashmir, killing about 73,000 people, including about 1,400 on the Indian side of the region. Troops have recently offered to help spruce up Muslim shrines and mosques in Kashmir.

Colonel S.K. Sakhuja, an Indian army spokesman, says this is part of a hearts-and-minds campaign that includes building schools, providing computers, constructing roads, and providing health care to people in remote villages. Even the military bunkers have "Help us help you" stenciled on them.

Colonel Sakhuja maintains that the campaign is working.

"This has been a great success because the support of the locals to the army has seen a turn for the better. They are very much supporting us in terms of cooperating with us to restore the normalcy to these regions," he said. "There have been instances of the militants acting against the civilians and the locals, and such information does come to us."

A recent Indian government decision to invite a high-level Israeli military training team to Kashmir did not go down well among the region's predominately Muslim population. The Israelis have been asked to help train Indian security forces in combating terrorism and cracking down on infiltration by cross-border militants.

Sajad Lone is author of the book Achievable Nationhood, which he calls a road map to peace in Kashmir. He describes India's use of Israeli military expertise as an attempt to inflame Muslim extremists in Kashmir and Pakistan.

"Intentionally provocative. Many such things - provocations - take place every day," he said. "But then I think there is a certain level of immunity, people have become immune to these provocations. But if you are talking of jihadist tendencies, it does fuel into that. Somewhere, it fuels it."

It is easy to see why distrust runs high between many Kashmiris and the New Delhi government. An estimated 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict. Eight-thousand to 10,000 more Kashmiris are missing, most of them military-age men who were allegedly detained by Indian security forces before they vanished.

Even now, senior government officials decline to comment on the missing. But India's defense secretary has formed a committee to look into the withdrawal of troops from Kashmir.

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