`Pound of flesh' called Kashmir

SUN JOURNAL

Territory: As its archenemy, Pakistan, forms an alliance with the United States, India fears the price could be American indifference toward Pakistani moves on the disputed border state.

October 11, 2001|By Vanessa Gezari | Vanessa Gezari,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW DELHI, India - Ever since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, India has watched with growing anxiety as its archenemy, Pakistan, nurtures a tentative alliance with the United States.

At the heart of India's concern lies the mountainous border state of Kashmir, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Its lakes and icy peaks have been elusive prizes in a territorial battle waged by India and Pakistan for more than 50 years.

Today, while the world worries about Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden, the remote territory of Kashmir has all the elements to set off another Muslim holy war.

As soon as America enlisted Pakistan's support for a global war on terrorism, politicians, intellectuals and business people among India's highly literate elite began quoting from The Merchant of Venice: Pakistan would help America fight Afghanistan's Taliban, the reasoning went, but only in exchange for a "pound of flesh" called Kashmir.

India's outrage surged when suicide bombers stormed the state assembly building in Kashmir's capital, Srinagar, on Oct. 1, killing 38 people and wounding dozens. The Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed initially claimed responsibility.

Kashmir has been disputed since 1947, when the partitioning of India into two countries created Pakistan. Kashmir, though mostly Muslim, was ruled by a Hindu maharajah who decided to give his allegiance to India. Subsequent battles left each country in control of parts of the region, separated by a Line of Control.

For 12 years, there have been clashes between the Indian government and militant groups, some of them supported by Pakistan.

"The U.S. has again cosied up to another military dictator in Islamabad," crowed an editorial in India's English-language Hindustan Times. "And the price he is trying to exact is that Washington should not be too inquisitive about the background of `freedom fighters' in Kashmir."

While India sees insurgents in Kashmir as terrorists, Pakistan views them as rebels fighting for Muslim control of the territory. The Srinagar attack sparked an angry letter from Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to President Bush.

"Ironically, [the attack] comes only a day after the President of Pakistan announced on television that Pakistan has no terrorist groups operating from its territory," Vajpayee wrote. "Incidents of this kind raise questions for our security which, as the democratically elected leader of India, I have to address in our supreme national interest. Pakistan must understand that there is a limit to the patience of the people of India."

The gentle valleys and Himalayan heights of Kashmir, immortalized in Hindi movies and frequented by thousands of tourists before guerrilla violence made them too risky, are of epic significance to both India and Pakistan.

Visitors to the region describe a landscape of apple trees, rivers and waterfalls. When tourism was at its height, saffron and walnut peddlers worked the streets of Srinagar, and visitors could glide across lakes in old-fashioned skiffs or sit on a hotel porch at twilight, watching plumes of smoke rise from chimneys across the hills.

Today, the mood surrounding the disputed territory is at its tensest since Pakistani-backed fighters invaded the Kargil region of Indian Kashmir in 1999, sparking months of skirmishes, says Karan R. Sawhny, director of the International Centre for Peace Initiatives, a New Delhi think tank.

"One can visualize the possibility of more active Indian responses," Sawhny says. "It is a more dangerous situation than it has been."

The recent assault on Srinagar was particularly bitter for India because the Jaish-e-Mohammed, the group that claimed responsibility for the attack before denying it 24 hours later, is believed to be led by Masood Azhar.

Azhar was imprisoned here until the Indian government traded him and several others for 129 passengers on an Indian Airlines flight hijacked to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1999. Pakistan condemned the Srinagar attack in a statement issued over the official media, saying it was aimed at "maligning the Kashmiris' struggle for their right to self-determination."

Indeed, many observers believe independence for Kashmir is the only way to achieve lasting peace in the region. At the time of partition, as Hindus moved south and Muslims traveled north, Kashmir was caught in the middle with both India and Pakistan seeking to control it.

The Indian government has since maintained that the state it calls Jammu and Kashmir is wholly part of India, but Pakistan controls a northern section of the region.

International human rights groups have found fault with both Indian forces and militant groups in Kashmir. Thousands of civilians have been killed in the conflict.

When the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, many here believed the fight against terrorism would bring India and America closer together. India hoped the new global agenda would mean American support for its battle against rebels in Kashmir.

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