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UN Faces Catch-22 in Kashmir

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Kashmir was set up in 1949 to monitor a cease-fire between India and Pakistan. The two fledgling nations had just emerged from two years of war for control over the scenic Himalayan region. But since a U.N.-backed line of control was set up in 1972 that divided Kashmir in two, India says the U.N. mission is no longer necessary. But that is not the end of the story, as VOA's Raymond Thibodeaux explains from Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Indian-controlled Kashmir came under heightened scrutiny in recent weeks as tens of thousands of Kashmiri protesters sought to march to the U.N. compound in Srinagar to deliver a memo outlining their grievances with India.

A much smaller delegation of protesters was allowed to deliver the memo, but the episode put the spotlight on one of the U.N.'s oldest peacekeeping missions, leaving many to question what it is still doing there 60 years into its mission. Its budget is now nearly $17 million a year.

Since a U.N.-backed line of control was set up in 1972, India contends that the U.N. mandate in Kashmir has lapsed. And despite of the mission's 44 military observers, there have been numerous cease-fire violations between Indian and Pakistani troops along the line-of-control - the latest last month.

Omar Abdullah is a member of India's parliament and president of the National Conference, a mainstream political party in Kashmir.

He says that when it comes to the U.N. mission in Kashmir, India is in a bind. It does not want the peacekeepers there, but it will not petition the U.N. Security Council to end to their mandate.

"I think the government of India has taken the view that it would probably be more troublesome to get rid of them than to just have them here sitting, doing nothing. Getting rid of them would require another discussion in the United Nations and the government of India does not want that," said Abdullah. "Because then it opens up the whole question of Kashmir and a discussion of Kashmir in the United Nations again."

The issue of Kashmir is complicated. Some see Kashmir as the unfinished partition between India and Pakistan. Both countries claim it in its entirety and have fought two wars over it. The United States intervened in 1999 to stop a third one.

In several resolutions by the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. Commission on India and Pakistan, India had agreed to hold an election in Kashmir to let Kashmiris decide whether they wanted to stay with India, side with Pakistan or become an independent country.

That election, or plebiscite, has never been held. For many Kashmiris, that is at the heart of the issue.

Sajad Lone is seen a voice of moderation in Kashmir's struggle for self-rule.

"Why would India take so much international embarrassment and so many protests if it knew that a small, democratic exercise of plebiscite would solve their problem? They know the results of the plebiscite and that is why they are trying to ensure that no plebiscite takes place," said Lone.

If a plebiscite were held, several analysts say that India would lose Kashmir. Faced with that possibility, they say India prefers the status quo.

But that creates a Catch-22 situation for U.N. peacekeepers in Kashmir. The peacekeepers are stuck in a kind of administrative limbo. India will not let them carry out their mandate, and the U.N. will not end their mandate until India follows through on its promise to hold a plebiscite in Kashmir.

Lone says India has overstepped international law by not allowing the Kashmir referendum.

"India is a party to the dispute, it is not the judge. They are just being arrogant and belligerent," added Lone. "The U.N. has to assert its role and not become a passive participant to any massacre that might take place."

Many Kashmiris criticized the U.N. for standing by as Indian security forces recently fired into crowds of protesters, killing at least 35 civilians.

The U.N. human rights office called for an investigation into India's handling of the largely peaceful demonstrations.