Kashmir - Land and blood

Date: 11 Jul 2008


Kashmir - Land and blood
Jul 5, 2008
From The Economist print edition

The independence campaign flares up in a row about land for Hindu

FIRE crackers and scattered cheering dotted the night on July 2nd in
Srinagar, as Kashmiris celebrated a rare victory over the Indian
government. Hours earlier, after a week of popular and violent protests,
Kashmir's government had rescinded a gift of protected-forest land to
Hindu pilgrims. In response, local Muslim separatists called off the
protests they had organised. But after this triumph, which followed a
year or so of relative calm in the troubled valley, fresh agitation
seems likely.
Indeed, it may well spread beyond Kashmir and go national. On July 1st
India's main opposition, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party
(BJP), called for a nationwide strike to put pressure on the state
government-which, like India's central government, is a coalition led by
the Congress party-to reverse its reversal. Sticking up for Hindu
pilgrims-hundreds of thousands of whom flock to a cave in Kashmir each
year to pay homage to a giant icicle they revere as an incarnation of
the god Shiva-is staple fare for the BJP. So is sticking it to uppity
As BJP leaders issued their call in Delhi, 80 people were injured in
rioting by Hindu activists in Jammu, the southern, mainly-Hindu, part of
India's only Muslim-majority state. With a general election due by next
May and Congress in trouble on the back of soaring inflation and other
woes, the contretemps is a godsend for the BJP.
It is also handy for Kashmir's separatist leaders. The 19-year-old
freedom fight has cost over 40,000 lives, by the Indian army's count,
and at least twice that by the separatists'; but the current death-rate,
at a bit under 100 a month, is at an all-time low. That, and internal
feuding, has taken the wind out of the separatist movement.
Fighting has flagged partly because Pakistan, which like India holds
part of the historic kingdom of Jammu & Kashmir and claims all of it,
has greatly reduced its former support to the insurgents. At the same
time, Kashmiris seem increasingly resigned to the status quo. Some still
hanker after the accession to Pakistan they feel was their due at
partition in 1947; probably a greater number want outright independence.
But many feel they have lost the battle. Turnout in local elections,
which the separatists boycott, is increasing. By rallying support for
their cause, separatist leaders may hope to dent turnout at the next
state election, due by November.
Hence the vigour with which they pounced on the government's decision to
grant 99 acres (40 hectares) of land to a Hindu body that manages the
icicle pilgrimage. This, it was explained, was to help provide temporary
shelter for more than 400,000 devotees who visit the icicle shrine, a
cave at Amarnath in south Kashmir, each year. Yet the separatist chiefs
preferred to see it as a brazen effort by the government to shift Hindus
into the Muslim-dominated Kashmir valley.
Thousands agreed. Beginning on June 29th, the state capital, Srinagar,
and the rest of the valley saw their biggest protests since the
early-1990s, when the insurgency was at its height. Five people were
killed and hundreds injured in clashes between the army and
stone-throwing youths. In this time of strife, two of the biggest of
Kashmir's many separatist factions, split over whether to negotiate with
the government, were reported to have reunited.
Also on June 29th, after noting which way the wind was blowing,
main local ally, the People's Democratic Party, quit the state
government. Reduced to a minority, Congress is now looking for other
allies to help it to hobble through to the polls later this year. The
gleeful separatists are meanwhile plotting protests against the
occupation of vast tracts of Kashmir by the army.
It may not stop there. Defying an unofficial curfew and a tear-gas
bombardment by soldiers nearby, several thousand men gathered in
Srinagar's main mosque on July 1st. Despite a dozen huge green Pakistani
flags hoisted above the throng, the speeches they heard, from local
religious and political leaders, were mainly for independence. "The
land-transfer deal has brought so many issues to light," said one
congregant, a local university professor. "In Kashmir, people are