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Banyan: Season of cheer ?

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Autumn has brought an outbreak of good sense in Kashmir, but can it last?

LOOKING for signs of cheer can be frustrating in Kashmir, the stunning mountain territory over which India and Pakistan have argued for more than 60 years, and three times gone to war. The most highly contested area, the Kashmir valley—controlled by India, populated mostly by Muslims and contested by Pakistan—has by turns been the focus of militancy, terrorism, popular violence and state repression. There have been lulls in violence, and shifts in strategy or fortune among actors. But those who discern an opening for a more hopeful future, even a glimmer of outright resolution, have always been proved wrong.

Yet there seems room, for now, for relations to warm. Take, for example, the swift and friendly return from Pakistan of an Indian army helicopter and crew which drifted 12 miles (19 km) over the Kashmiri line of control on October 23rd. What could easily have been a diplomatic rumpus instead became a token of tentative co-operation. Within the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir itself are signs of a new-found reasonableness. The state’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, has started saying in public what he has expressed in private for over a year: that it is time to scrap the repressive Armed Forces Special Powers Act. For two decades the law has given immunity to Indian soldiers who kill or beat up civilians. In some urban areas, Mr Abdullah says, it will no longer apply from early November. Army men will be aghast, but Mr Abdullah is quite right that it is not their job to decide.

All this has stirred debate. Less noticed but as important, on October 19th Mr Abdullah’s cabinet decided to revise the equally hated Public Safety Act. This has long been misused by police to detain suspects without charge, even children, for as long as two years. Amnesty International reckons that under this “lawless law” as many as 20,000 Kashmiris have been thrown behind bars over the past couple of decades. The revisions are too timid. But at least they should ensure that children are kept from jail—there can be no better place to radicalise them—and that detention without charge for people of any age is much curtailed.

Set against the grim mood of a year ago, all this is generally encouraging. In the summer of 2010 blundering police shot dead over 110 protesters taking part in something akin to an intifada. This year’s end-of-summer reckoning is happier: protests and violence have been much more muted. Meanwhile, more than 1m tourists, most of them Indian, have visited Kashmir, delivering a welcome economic boost. And now a report by a trio of interlocutors sent by the government in Delhi to study Kashmir’s problems for a year may also help. Handed in this month though not yet published, the report is expected to support: giving more autonomy to component parts of Kashmir (the valley, Jammu and Ladakh); helping the return of Kashmiri Pandits, the region’s upper-caste Hindus, and others forced out of Kashmir by violence; launching inquiries into killings; and easing the security laws.

It matters, too, that officials are starting to talk about horrors of the recent past. In August an official report confirmed claims by a local human-rights group that it had found more than 2,700 bodies in unmarked graves—most, probably, were militants killed by security forces. Mr Abdullah has called for DNA testing and an inquiry. The national government in Delhi may next announce a full judicial commission into widespread disappearances since Kashmir’s insurgency flared in 1989. As many as 8,000 people may be missing. It would take courage for political leaders to dig into that, but it would be a strong signal of a willingness to heed Kashmiris’ complaints of repression and misrule.

As important, though, India will need to see some signs of reciprocity. Some is coming from hardline Kashmiri separatists, and diehards over the border in Pakistan. How else to explain an apparently significant shift by the most prominent and popular separatist, the ageing Syed Ali Shah Geelani? On October 20th he aired the possibility of holding talks with the national government. That is striking for a man who made his name by vowing never to talk until India met a range of unmeetable demands, such as withdrawing all soldiers from Kashmir. Mr Geelani seems to be distancing himself from militants who continue not to countenance ever talking to the national government. Maybe his more moderate son and other advisers are gaining sway. They may imagine that something like Northern Ireland’s Good Friday agreement might one day be attainable in Kashmir.

If so, it would take much more than a change of heart by one leader. Pakistan’s role matters hugely. A shift of stance by Pakistan’s government, away from outright hostility to a willingness to resolve Kashmir’s place within India, might explain a change in the behaviour of even some militant groups. For instance, a dreaded terrorist outfit based in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, in effect said sorry for assassinating a moderate Kashmiri Islamic leader outside a mosque in Srinagar last April. Perhaps Pakistan’s rulers want nothing to scupper the chance of a new trade deal with India early next year. Such a deal would benefit Pakistan’s stuttering economy and boost those who barter chillies, mangoes and carpets over the Kashmiri line of control. If trade trumps terrorism, then Kashmiris would indeed have reason to cheer.

All blow away

The current affability, however, could yet blow away as quickly as bonfire smoke in a Srinagar sky. Several things crucial to any political settlement must exist at once for Kashmiris to believe in the possibility of peace: talks between the government and the separatists; talks between India and Pakistan; a readiness by Indian politicians to temper their strident nationalism; and efforts by Pakistani generals to stop militants on their side crossing the border. For now, optimists can see all these things coming together. Just as easily though, a big bomb attack on an Indian city traced to Kashmiri terrorists, or something harder for Pakistan to ignore than a straying helicopter, and it could all unravel again.

WALL STREET JOURNAL

U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis