India, seeking Kashmir peace, feels the anger of residents

India, seeking Kashmir peace, feels the anger of residents
Srinagar, Kashmir:  The Indian members of Parliament left their shoes on the floor beneath a wall covered in photographs of slain Kashmiris. The five men sat cross-legged on the floor of the headquarters of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, staring into a throng of television cameras as they delivered a carefully scripted message of reconciliation.

"We have come to get your counsel," said Ram Vilas Paswan, a member of Parliament, turning to the leader of the Liberation Front, a former guerrilla fighter named Yasin Malik. "What is the way out? What is the way to stop the bloodshed?"

For more than 100 days, in which Indian security officers have killed more than 100 Kashmiri civilians, the Indian government has seemed paralyzed, or even indifferent, as this disputed Himalayan region has plunged into one of the gravest crises of its tortured history.

Unable to quiet the unrest, or even fully understand it, Indian leaders this week sent the equivalent of a peace delegation to Kashmir. Members visited a hospital and met with politicians, business leaders and even separatists like Malik before returning to New Delhi on Tuesday night to confer with the Prime Minister.

Unlike the rest of India, where Hinduism is the predominant religion, the majority of Kashmiris are Muslim.

India often views Kashmir through its rivalry with Pakistan, with both countries controlling portions of the region and each claiming its entirety. Yet Indian officials concede that this latest unrest is different, a domestic Kashmiri revolt against Indian rule, unlike past insurgencies sponsored by Pakistan.

If the delegation's two-day visit proved anything, it was that the way out of the crisis would be very uncertain, complicated by historic distrust, a rising Kashmiri demand for political independence and seething anger within the younger generation toward the heavy security presence on the ground.

Indeed, the delegation, led by India's home minister and comprising members of Parliament from major political parties, got a firsthand look at the suffocating government curfew that has choked the entire region since the latest cycle of protests and police shootings broke out more than a week ago. When delegation members visited the hospital, they were jeered, according the news reports.

The delegation's procession of white Ambassador sedans passed along empty streets and shuttered shops, with officers posted every 50 yards with machine guns. If the delegation had come to reach out to Kashmir, it was extending its hand through barbed wire.

"It is humiliating," said A. H. Punjabi, a vice president of Kashmir's chamber of commerce. On Monday morning, Punjabi traveled about 6 miles to testify before the delegation at a half-day hearing. Although the streets were empty, and Although he had a special curfew pass, he was stopped more than 20 times by officers during his trip, which took more than an hour.

"I was telling them that I have to attend this delegation meeting," he added. "But they wanted to know who I was, with which organization."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, after being briefed by the parliamentary delegation, is expected to announce some sort of package or policy response on Kashmir. But with many Kashmiris calling for a bold initiative addressing their aspirations to self-determination, it is unclear how far Singh can go.

Many Kashmiri leaders are calling for the repeal or easing of special laws that protect soldiers and security officers and grant near immunity in shootings -- laws that many people say have led to human rights violations. But military leaders are resisting changes, and hard-liners in the political opposition warn that weakening the laws would amount to a political victory for Pakistan.

The immediate political question is the fate of the government in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is led by Omar Abdullah of the National Conference Party. Elected in December 2008, Abdullah, the scion of a Kashmiri political dynasty, presented himself as a fresh, honest face, one who would bring jobs and push New Delhi to make concessions on issues like political autonomy and scaling back the security presence. He became a political ally of Rahul Gandhi, the heir to the governing Indian National Congress party, and even appeared on the cover of the Indian edition of GQ magazine.

But Abdullah's popularity has cratered, and his critics say his inexperience and inattention allowed the crisis to spin out of control. His critics also equated his frequent absences -- his wife and children live in New Delhi -- to disregard. The situation is a major political problem for the Congress-led central government, which is allied with Abdullah's party and placed his father in the cabinet.

"You had a moment of hope, and then after 18 months, the hope collapsed," said Amitabh Mattoo, an analyst with a specialty in Kashmiri politics. Initially, leaders in the central government made public declarations of support for Abdullah, but in recent days speculation has arisen that the state government may soon be replaced.

"This guy was just not able to grasp that something was happening and it needed to be managed," said a senior official in the prime minister's office, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "How to deal with a street demonstration? That should not be micromanaged from Delhi."

The steadily rising death toll is the most lethal measurement of the governmental failure to quell the crisis. As of Tuesday, at least 107 people had been killed, often in confrontations between stone-throwing protesters and security officers returning lethal fire.

In addition, local journalists say state officials blocked the distribution of newspapers and prohibited several local television channels from providing news coverage after they broadcast video of the funeral processions of protesters or of officers firing on crowds. One person said electricity and water were shut off in his entire neighborhood because some people had thrown stones.

"Why would we trust them?" said one man who had slipped out on Sunday evening, despite the curfew. "There is no reason to trust India. There is a huge trust deficit. The press is seized. The people are caged."

Malik, the separatist leader, discounts any suggestion that Kashmir is inflamed merely because of bad governance or mismanagement. After listening to the visiting parliamentary delegation on Monday night, Malik recited a long litany of broken promises from Indian leaders going back to the founding of the nation in 1947. Ultimately, he argued, the only thing that will pacify Kashmiris is a political solution, involving Pakistan, to fulfill the region's desire for self-determination.

"Do not give them a sense of defeat," he said. "Give them a sense of hope. Or you will push them to revolution." 

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