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Kashmiri Separatists Shift Focus from Militancy to the Marketplace


The recent unrest in Kashmir has taken on an economic hue as Kashmir's separatist groups shift their focus from militancy to the marketplace. With the only road between Kashmir and the rest of India blocked by Hindu protesters - and supplies of food and fuel to Kashmir running short - Kashmiri leaders are calling on India to open the road linking Kashmir to Rawalpindi in Pakistan, reviving a centuries-old trade route that was shut down when India and Pakistan split in 1947. Raymond Thibodeaux reports for VOA from Srinagar, the summer capital of the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Wahid Ahmed, a 23-year-old mechanic, and his brother Munir, 24, a truck driver, were carrying their truckload of about one hundred sheep from Delhi to Kashmir when Hindu extremists attacked them and about 60 other trucks.

Wahid describes the attack. He says the Indian Army had been escorting the truckers. They said it was ok to go and left them. At around the same time, they were attacked by groups allied with India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. He said the attackers included Bajrang Dal people, Shiv Sena people and Hindu Parishad people. He said they threw stones, attacked with acid and used swords and knives. He said the police were nearby but did nothing.

Wahid escaped with a gash on his head requiring 15 stitches. His brother had cuts and bruises on his arms and legs, but was able to drive them out of harm's way. They said the attackers in Jammu, the southern district of Jammu & Kashmir state, looted more than half the sheep on their truck.

They are lucky. Hindu protesters along that stretch of highway in Jammu have killed at least one truck driver, and injured about 40 others, according to several newspaper reports. Jammu police reported that dozens of trucks have been vandalized, some of them set on fire with petrol bombs. The violence stems from a land dispute in Jammu. The protesters rage was sparked by a state government decision to rescind an order that gave about 40 hectares of land of forested land to a Hindu shrine board. The land would have been used to provide temporary shelters for Hindu pilgrims visiting a nearby cave shrine.

The partial blockade - the attacks and the looting - have spread fear in the trucking community, choking off supplies of food and fuel to Kashmir Valley. That has waked Kashmiris to a harsh reality: that a relatively small group of protesters could sever Kashmir's main lifeline to the rest of India.

Umar Farooq is an imam and a senior leader for the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a coalition of Kashmiri separatist groups.

"People are realizing that economic independence is probably more important than political independence," he said. "Nobody was realizing that before. India can choke us anytime. No matter what the situation is tomorrow, the first they will do is stop the supply into Kashmir.

The solution, Farooq and other Kashmiri leaders say, is in a relatively unused road that goes from Srinagar to the Pakistani border town of Muzaffarabad, and from there to markets in Rawalpindi, on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. It is a relatively small stretch of an ancient trade route - the Silk Road that connects Europe and Asia - that was shut down when India and Pakistan split in 1947, cutting off trade in the region.

Their hope is that framing Kashmir's conflict in economic terms could make it an easier sell to the West - and to India. For many Kashmiris, the conflict is no longer only about freedom. It is also about free trade.

At massive rallies recently in Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital, protesters for the first time shouted slogans like, "Kashmir's market is in Rawalpindi."

The shift in focus from militancy to the marketplace seems subtle for many outsiders, but it is seismic for many Kashmiris, who have seen violent conflict between Indian security forces and armed separatists for nearly two decades.

But the road toward Rawalpindi is not without risk. Earlier this month, a planned march to Muzaffarabad alongside a convoy of trucks loaded with apples - Kashmir's biggest cash crop - was cut short by Indian security forces, who fired into the crowd of thousands, killing five, including a senior Hurriyat leader, and injuring more than 200.

Omar Abdullah is a member of India's parliament and president of the National Conference, a mainstream political party in Kashmir. He says India has stalled the issue of reopening free trade between Kashmir and Pakistan.

"Trade between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad is part of confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan that has time and again been talked about by mainstream political parties," he said. "Unfortunately, New Delhi has not responded.. As a result, the separatists have jumped on the same bandwagon. That is when the fruit growers and everybody else said, 'Hang on. If the rest of India's market is closed to us, then we will start heading the other way."

India's government claims that it is ready to open the trade route for Muzaffarabad. It blames Pakistan for stalling the issue. Pakistan, for its part, blames India.

The only civilian traffic plying that road now is a bus service launched three years ago. The bus departs every two weeks, but it is frequently shut down during periods of insecurity.

Meanwhile, as the blockade in Jammu continues, many Kashmiris say that supplies of medicine, baby formula, meat and fuel are running low and prices are starting to rise. For many here, the road to Muzaffarabad and Rawalpindi never looked better.