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New State Government Takes Power in Kashmir

This week, a new state government took power in Indian Kashmir, promising to bring peace and stability to a region torn by violence for nearly two decades. But, many of the issues which triggered a separatist insurgency, in 1989 in India's only Muslim-majority region, remain unresolved.

When Omar Abdullah, 38, was sworn as head of Jammu and Kashmir state, Monday, an air of optimism was raised through the restive region.

His National Conference Party is one of Kashmir's main pro-India parties. Omar Abdullah is not only a charismatic politician, he is also the youngest-ever leader to rule the state. He is promising change at a crucial time.

The Kashmir Valley, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan, is scarred by a violent separatist insurgency that has raged for nearly 15 years. Violence has decreased in recent years, but anti-India sentiment still runs deep in the Himalayan region. Last year, separatist leaders based in Srinagar rallied tens of thousands of people in pro-independence marches.

Mr. Abdullah admits he faces daunting challenges in trying to win the trust of people in a troubled region.

"The challenge of healing not only the wounds of six, seven months of agitation, but 20 years of militancy - there's a lot that needs to be done," he said. "Because of my age and other factors expectations are much higher. And, I only hope that I can deliver on them."

India is hoping that a strong turnout at the recent elections is a signal that separatism is on the wane and that Kashmiris are reconciled to Indian rule. Indian leaders point out that people in the Kashmir Valley largely ignored a call by separatist leaders for an election boycott and more than half the state participated in the elections.

Political analyst Prem Shankar Jha says the "satisfactory turnout" at the elections represents a major step forward, but warns that Kashmiris still want to decide their own political future.

"They have come out in very large numbers to vote. Now, when you vote you are actually rejecting the bullet. The ballot and the bullet don't go together," he said. "So, it is an acceptance of democracy. It does not mean that Kashmiris are satisfied with the present state of things and the elections are not a substitute for a settlement with the separatists."

Separatist leaders Srinagar also deny that they are a diminishing force and have been marginalized by the elections. They say people only turned out to vote because they want to have their day-to-day problems addressed.

Sajjad Lone, a prominent separatist leader in Kashmir, says the political aspirations of people still remain unfulfilled, and separatist parties are not a diminished factor.

"We have to look which dimensions need to be brought more in tune with the current reality. I do agree that we need a healthy role of introspection; but the doomsday scenario that is being predicted, I can assure you it would not prove right," said Lone.

The new state government in Kashmir agrees that separatist leaders need to be brought into the mainstream and has underlined the need for talks with them. The National Conference Party is pro-India, but it wants more autonomy for the state.

Analyst Prem Shankar Jha says Kashmir's new leader is aware of the need to address the sense of alienation which runs deep in the region. But he says a quick solution to the long-running Kashmir crisis is unlikely, because the future of the region is also linked to a settlement between India and Pakistan which both claim the region.

"I think what is important now for this government, therefore, is to push Delhi to resume the peace process with Pakistan and to insist on having a say on what that settlement finally is," he added.

But tensions are running high between India and Pakistan following the November terror strike in Mumbai which India blames on militant groups in Pakistan. And, analysts say unless those relations improve, a solution to the Kashmir dispute will be nowhere in sight.