For many Kashmiris, a question of identity

Conflict: For some, it's a matter of Muslim vs. Hindu, Pakistan vs. India. Others say they want their own state because they are different.

February 04, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SRINAGAR, India - On streets empty of traffic, soldiers from India's Border Security Force were standing guard.

At their feet sat more than 1,000 Kashmiri men, huddled on the freezing pavement in woolen cloaks and clasping the traditional Kashmiri warmer, a wicker basket wrapped around a clay pot filled with glowing embers.

One by one, the soldiers made the men lift their cloaks as they frisked for weapons. Then, each man filed past a jeep equipped with bulletproof glass, where an informant sat waiting to identify suspected militants.

After three hours, the lineup ended without an arrest. A roar arose from the weary crowd, and the men tromped off to work. Left lingering in the air, though, was the deep resentment born from a dozen years of war.

"As you can see, we are like slaves sitting on the ground," said Ashiq Hussain, 21, as he awaited the soldiers' permission to open his clothing shop. "We have suffered for the last 12 years. What for?"

That is the question the people of Kashmir are asking. Since 1989, Kashmiri separatists and Pakistan-based Muslim militants have waged guerrilla war against Indian security forces to wrest this region from India.

Neither Pakistan nor India nor the separatists have much to show for their efforts. Hundreds of thousands of Indian troops operate here, essentially as an occupying force. Suspected militants continue to toss grenades into business districts and set off bombs near government installations.

The Indian government says more than 30,000 people have died in the fighting. Human rights groups place the toll at more than 60,000 - about 13 people a day since the war began.

Other nations might view Kashmir as a minor regional conflict were it not for India's test of nuclear weapons in 1998. Pakistan, with which India has fought two wars over Kashmir, quickly followed. The regional dispute swiftly took on global implications, and Kashmir emerged as a potential trigger for a nuclear war.

In recent months, Kashmir has again threatened to draw India and Pakistan into war. After gunmen attacked India's Parliament building in December, New Delhi blamed Pakistan-based militant groups fighting in Kashmir. India sent troops to the Pakistani border in the region's biggest military buildup in three decades.

Tensions eased after Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, cracked down on Islamic extremists, banning Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, the militant groups blamed for the Parliament attack. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell visited New Delhi and Islamabad last month to urge the sides to begin talks.

Peace used to be the norm here.

Iftikhar A. Rafiqi used to stroll the streets of Srinagar at night. Now, every day about 5:30 p.m., he rolls down the aluminum door of his shoe store and reaches home before nightfall, to avoid being stopped by security forces after dark.

Nearly everyone in Kashmir knows or is related to someone who has died in the conflict. Two years ago, one of Rafiqi's friends, Mohammed Ashraf, a bank manager, was shot to death with his wife as they were returning home from visiting a cousin.

Soldiers said the two were caught in a crossfire. Rafiqi suspects the shootings were the work of overzealous soldiers.

"People are really fed up," said Rafiqi, warming his hands by a bonfire made of shoeboxes in a muddy parking lot. "We've been struggling for 10 or 12 years, but it's the same story. Except for the deaths, nothing has changed."

The dispute over Kashmir began in 1947 at the end of British colonial rule, when Pakistan was partitioned from India. Pakistan was created as a Muslim state.

Pakistanis assumed that Kashmir, a Muslim-majority state, would join them. When tribal warriors from Pakistan invaded Kashmir, the territory's leader, a Hindu maharaja, sought help from India.

The result has been two wars, a militarized border and a divided Kashmir. Although families in India-controlled Kashmir can visit relatives in the Pakistan-controlled section, they must obtain visas and travel a circuitous route.

Sarfraz Begum arrived here from Lahore in 1946 to marry a local magistrate. When war broke out, she was trapped in India. Government officials and their spouses were barred from traveling to Pakistan. Begum had to wait 34 years, until her husband's retirement in 1980, to return home to Pakistan.

India and Pakistan cling fiercely to Kashmir because it is central to their identities. Pakistan views Kashmir as the missing piece of its Muslim puzzle. Predominantly Hindu India fears that losing Kashmir would undermine its self-image as a tolerant, multireligious nation and encourage separatist movements elsewhere.

Kashmiri leaders are divided over the future of the territory. Some want an independent state, others want to join Pakistan for historic or religious reasons. One point of agreement: They hate India.

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