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October 6, 2010

Kashmir Needs a Healing Touch

By

India and Pakistan have fought two full-fledged wars and experienced several military crises over Kashmir. Now, the region is once again on the boil.

After the 2001-02 Indo-Pakistani military crisis and a decade of Pakistani-backed militancy, two successful elections helped restore calm in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The October 2002 election ushered in a "healing touch" government.

And the largely peaceful November 2008 election demonstrated that Kashmiris kept faith with the political process, despite a summer of protests over a land grant to an organization running a Hindu shrine in the Muslim-majority state.

But unrest returned to Kashmir this summer, with far more serious consequences. At least 100 civilians have been killed since early June, when a tear-gas canister fired by Indian security forces accidentally killed a teen during a protest against human rights abuses.

The current upheavals contrast sharply with the bloody insurgency of the 1990s. Then, bands of armed militants — most with Pakistani backing — engaged Indian security forces on a regular basis. Most of those killed this summer are youths armed only with stones.

The U.S. must pay close attention to developments in Kashmir, but it should resist the temptation to pursue a direct role in mediating the crisis.

Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, argues in the New York Review of Books for the U.S. to take a more high-profile role on the issue. But a more visible U.S. role in this 63-year-old dispute risks exacerbating tensions. It could raise false expectations among separatists and within Pakistan's army, which provoked the 1999 Kargil border war precisely to force U.S. involvement in the dispute.

Mr. Coll further argues that the 2008 Mumbai attacks were a "warning" on Kashmir — as if the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists responsible for the atrocities have a role to play in the dispute. Yet one of the main Kashmiri separatist groups recently lambasted Pakistani militant groups for hijacking their cause. If the Mumbai attacks demonstrated anything, it is that Pakistan-based terrorists are not so much interested in Kashmir as they are in wreaking havoc throughout the country in an attempt to sabotage India's emerging power status.

Rather than pursue a high-profile intervention, the U.S. should exercise quiet diplomacy that spurs New Delhi to address Kashmiri grievances on its own and ensures that Pakistan does not try to exploit the situation.

New Delhi's proposal for dialogue with Kashmiri political and youth groups and its pledge to review the heavy Indian security force presence in the state is positive. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, "Unrest in Jammu and Kashmir over the last few weeks is a matter of concern. The youths of Kashmir are our citizens and their grievances have to be addressed."

Also encouraging is Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram's recent statement that New Delhi should act on promises made to the people of Jammu and Kashmir over the past 50 years. Rather than the usual knee-jerk reaction blaming Pakistan for the upheavals, Mr. Chidambaram's statement acknowledges political disaffection in the state. Perhaps New Delhi's leadership can muster the political will to begin a genuine dialogue with Srinagar that can lead to durable peace in the region.

Article 370 of the Indian Constitution grants the state of Jammu and Kashmir special "autonomous" status. Theoretically, the state is empowered to govern itself except in foreign affairs, defense and commerce. But this special status has been gradually stripped away, and two decades of insurgency have prompted periodic security crackdowns leading to human rights abuses.

New Delhi's most immediate challenge is to determine who speaks for Kashmir's disgruntled youths. While some separatists have participated in the political process, most have not. Instead, they maintain a voice in politics mainly by leading anti-India protests. Complicating matters is the fact that some separatist leaders act merely as proxies for Pakistan. Their main goal may be stirring up trouble rather than working toward any meaningful solution.

Damping Pakistani pot-stirring is vital. The U.S. should prod New Delhi and Islamabad to get back to the progress they made in their dialogue from 2004 to 2007. During this period, the two sides began to close the gap in their thinking on a Kashmir resolution. President Pervez Musharraf declared in early December 2006 that Pakistan would give up its claim to Kashmir if India agreed to demilitarize both sides of the Line of Control, develop a plan for self-governance of Kashmir and institute a mechanism for India and Pakistan to jointly supervise the region.

These ideas echo another productive period (1962 to 1963) of Indo-Pakistani dialogue. The broad outlines of a long-term solution — one that permits some form of self-rule and free movement of people in the region — has been discussed approvingly for nearly a half-century.

It's time the two nations summon the political will to implement such a solution. That will necessarily require Islamabad to crack down on terrorist groups who are more interested in provoking another Indo-Pakistani war. What the two sides do not need are high-stakes, high-profile U.S.-led negotiations.

Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation

First appeared in The Washington Times

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