India -- Wali Mohammed Khan fell to his
knees on the unmarked grave where he believes Indian authorities buried
his eldest son.
"My son, why did the cruel and
barbarous forces kill you?" the impoverished farmer wailed as he
prayed over the earthen mound one recent morning.
His son Farooq, 22, was arrested by
Indian security forces in August. A few weeks later, authorities claimed
they had killed a "foreign terrorist" and published a photo of
Farooq's corpse in the newspaper. Khan said his son was a baker, not a
foreign militant. He has asked a court to exhume the body.
Whatever the truth may be, Khan's
anguish is a sad daily fact of life in Kashmir, the Himalayan province
where armed resistance to Indian occupation has dragged on for 15 years.
The conflict has claimed tens of
thousands of lives - more than 3,000 last year alone, a quarter of them
civilians, according to the Public Commission on Human Rights, an
independent advocacy organization.
"We are dying," said Mohammed
Yasin Malik, chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which
opposes Indian rule. "The international community is a silent
spectator. We don't have oil wealth, so the world has little reason to
Few international disputes rival that
over Kashmir for complexity and intractability. Occupied by Pakistan and
India for more than half a century, Kashmir assumed even more ominous
importance after the rivals tested nuclear weapons in 1998.
Now, under international pressure to
stabilize the fragile region, India and Pakistan are making tentative
plans to negotiate a solution. A six-month-old cease-fire appears to be
holding along the border, and the neighbors have agreed to hold talks this
Improved relations with Pakistan have
buoyed the electoral prospects of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari
Vajpayee, whose ruling National Democratic Alliance is expected to retain
control after three weeks of nationwide voting ends May 10.
Yet so many summits have failed that few
are optimistic this one will be any different.
"There is much talk of
transformation, but there is so much mistrust that you take one step and
you're no longer on solid ground," said Muzaffar Hussain Baig,
finance minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the region's full
Indian name. He speaks from experience: He now limps after surviving a
grenade attack at a campaign rally April 8 that killed nine people.
The feud over Kashmir dates from 1947,
when newly independent India was partitioned into Hindu India and Muslim
Pakistan. Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim region with its own language,
was ruled by a Hindu prince who vacillated over which country to
Then Islamic tribesmen from Pakistan
invaded and occupied Kashmir's northern third. The prince cast his lot
with India, asking for help, and forces loyal to New Delhi occupied the
more populous south.
The first India-Pakistan war ended in
1949 with a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, establishing a line dividing
Kashmir. A U.N. resolution called for Kashmiris to vote on the region's
fate, but the referendum was never held.
Another brief war broke out in 1965. In
1972, the two sides signed an agreement to resolve the dispute
bilaterally, but both refused to budge and became deeply entrenched along
the 475-mile Line of Control that divides the Indian and Pakistani
sections of Kashmir.
Amid the stalemate, an armed conflict
erupted in 1989 in Indian-occupied territory.
Originally a nationalist movement, the
militancy was usurped by Islamic extremists waging a "holy war"
to drive India out of Kashmir. India calls it a proxy war directed by
Pakistani-supplied terrorists; Pakistan calls it an indigenous uprising of
Kashmiris frustrated by years of Indian oppression.
While never admitting it provided
anything other than political support to the Kashmiri separatists,
Pakistan was forced to restrict the activities of cross-border militants
after the 9/11 attacks. But the groups still operate underground, experts
"Pakistan has put intervention in
Kashmir on hold, but it has not abandoned it," said I.A. Rehman,
director of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission in Lahore.
India has taken advantage of the
cease-fire to step up attacks on militants and build a 12-foot electrified
fence on the Line of Control to prevent infiltration.
Increased cooperation and other
"confidence-building measures," such as the recent well-received
series of cricket matches between the two national teams, has raised hopes
for more dialogue.
Still, Kashmir is far from peaceful.
Srinagar, capital of the Indian-occupied territory whose gorgeous
landscape drew droves of tourists in peaceful times, is heavily
militarized by Indian troops.
Uniformed security forces cluster at
nearly every intersection, protected by razor wire-shrouded
A brick bunker built in front of a
cinema destroyed by militants bears a sign erected by security forces. It
contains a poetic lament in Urdu that says in part: "We could have
entered your souls, but you never accepted us as your own."
There appears to be little public
support for the Indians in Srinagar. "India came up here to liberate
us and then they became an occupation army," said Sheikh Nazir Ahmand,
general secretary of the National Conference, Kashmir's largest political
party. Many Kashmiri parties advocate boycotting the current elections to
send a protest message to New Delhi.
Reports of violence are so routine they
are often consigned to the last pages of local newspapers. So many groups
have motives to kill - Indian security forces, Islamic extremists,
pro-Indian paramilitary, rival politicians - that some deaths are
attributed to "unidentified gunmen" and left at that.
But two Kashmiri civilians a day died
last year, many of them hapless victims caught in the crossfire after
being dragooned into service as porters for the security forces, according
to the Public Commission on Human Rights.
Dozens more disappear and then turn up
dead, counted by the security forces as militants. Such was the case with
Farooq Ahmad Khan, the 22-year-old baker, said Pervez Imroz, a lawyer who
heads the commission
"This is the pattern here," he
said. "Noncombatants are killed, and security forces claim they've
killed foreign militants."
India has a great incentive to ascribe
more of the casualties to foreign militants: To the world and its domestic
audience, it portrays the Kashmir conflict as strictly an external affair,
directed by Islamic extremists based in Pakistan.
But political leaders here stress that
they share little with the foreign militants, who practice a
fundamentalist form of Islam incompatible with the moderate Sufi Islam
that predominates in Kashmir.
"We're now in the position where
our struggle is being labeled as religiously fundamentalist, and that's
simply not true," said Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, an opposition political
leader who is chief cleric at one of Srinagar's largest mosques.
"As a Muslim leader, I can tell you
it's a totally political struggle. But India has been able to portray the
struggle as terrorist and Islamist."
A critical problem in Kashmir is that
there is no consensus about a path to resolution. Both Pakistan and India
are under tremendous pressure from domestic hard-line groups to not
relinquish any ground.
Indeed, Kashmir has assumed enormous
symbolic importance in both countries. Pakistan insists the
Muslim-majority region belongs in its orbit and says the uprising is
justified by years of abusive Indian occupation. India says it has strong
legal and historical ties to Kashmir and fears that liberating it would
embolden separatists in other regions, disintegrating India's federal
government, the Indian Union.
This month, negotiators got a sample of
the obstacles they will face when talks opened on restoring bus service
across the Line of Control, linking Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, the capital
of Pakistan-occupied Azad Kashmir - Free Kashmir.
Pakistan declined to install an
immigration post at its side of the boundary, fearing that would
legitimize the Line of Control as an international border. India did not
want to allow Kashmiris to use neutral U.N. passports to cross, since that
might acknowledge that the territory under their control is in dispute.
And Kashmiris don't want to travel using any passports, since they say the
territory is illegally divided.
So the talks on bus service were
postponed indefinitely. In the meantime, the dying continues.
Story corrected from print version