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Despite Indian-Pakistani Talks, Kashmiris Still Waiting for Peace - 2004-09-28

Tens of thousands of tourists visited Indian Kashmir this year, encouraged by the ongoing peace dialogue between India and Pakistan. But there is no sign that a 15-year insurgency by Islamic separatists will soon end, leaving Kashmiris yearning for a permanent peace. Anjana Pasricha recently visited Srinagar, in Indian-held Kashmir, and has this report.

A boatman gently steers two tourists through the placid waters of Dal Lake in Srinagar - Kashmir's summer capital, which lies in the midst of lush fruit orchards and mountains. The visitors have come to stay in the famed houseboats on the lake.

Houseboat owner Abdul Rashid is grateful for the business - the latest visitors will swell his earnings from a full tourist season.

"This year I can say it was a lot better than what was here since last 13 years. If the business is going to be in Kashmir continue, then it will help all the problems, because then militancy will not stay, people will be busy to make money," he said.

For 15 years, Islamic militants have been fighting an insurgency in Indian-held Kashmir. More than 60,000 people have died, most of them civilians, and the economy has been battered by the fighting.

India governs about two-thirds of the mostly Muslim region. Pakistan controls the rest. Both claim all of Kashmir, and they have fought two wars over it.

For nearly a year, however, the two countries have worked to ease tensions. They have agreed to a military cease-fire along the Line of Control dividing Kashmir, and have held a series of talks on a variety of issues.

Last year, tourists began returning to Kashmir as relations between India and Pakistan warmed. The visitors put money back into the pockets of hotel owners, taxi drivers and boatmen.

Signs of normal life are returning to Srinagar, although it remains a heavily guarded city, with armed soldiers patrolling neighborhoods. There is traffic on the streets and the shops are open later into the evening.

For years, ticket taker Ghulam Bhat sat idle - now he busily punches visitors' entry passes at one of Kashmir's famed gardens.

"The Kashmiris are very happy this year, most happy," he said. "Look at the face of the Kashmiri this time, you can see every Kashmiri looking in a glad mood."

But the good mood is fleeting. Despite better relations between Islamabad and New Delhi, the insurgents continue to launch deadly attacks on the Indian military. And the Indian military continues to crackdown on suspected militants.

India's efforts to stamp out the insurgency have bred anger and resentment among Kashmiris, who blame the security forces for widespread human rights violations.

Some Srinagar residents call for independence from India in a funeral march for two militants killed in a recent attack on a security bunker. Such chants were heard almost daily in Kashmir at the height of the insurgency 10 years ago. The cries are fewer and more muted now, but they still attract popular sympathy.

Men and women defend their decision to hold funeral prayers for the militants, saying they are fighting the troops they hate. And many people, such as photographer Masood Rashid, blame both India and Pakistan for not ending the conflict long ago.

"I want freedom. I don't want to go to Pakistan, I don't want to go to India. I want to go to freedom -separate, separate," he said.

The military denies there are widespread rights violations, although it says some isolated incidents are inevitable in fighting an armed insurgency.

Muzaffar Baig, the finance minister in the state government, says his government is trying to help people pick up the threads of a normal life, but the task is not easy.

"Are we fully satisfied? Certainly, no," he said. "There is no doubt that there is an overriding impulse to get on with their lives. But that does not mean that they are happy or they are reconciled. They want there must be some improvement on the situation of Kashmir."

In Kashmir, analysts and political leaders blame India for not doing enough to address alienation among ordinary people. Tahir Mohiuddin, editor of the Urdu weekly newspaper Chataan", says people crave an end to the fighting.

"Because there has been so much violence, there has been so much suffering, people want some change and surely I will say that people want first, an end to this violence," he said.

All across the region the cry is for "aman" - Urdu for peace. But as negotiations between India and Pakistan progress slowly, few are willing to guess when and if Kashmir will get the permanent peace it seeks.