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Kashmir on the brink

Soutik Biswas | 15:28 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Anti-India protests in Kashmir

The Indian government says it is "deeply distressed" by Monday's violence in Kashmir. Such fleeting concern may simply not be enough to restore peace. In the past two summers, incidents at home have proved how fragile peace is in the disputed territory: a land row in 2008, and the alleged rape of two women last year sparked off intense anti-India protests. This year, the protests began with a death of a teenager after he was hit by a tear gas shell lobbed by the police. The demonstrations escalated on Monday after reports of Koran desecration in the US - localised protests against the reports began in Shia Muslim-dominated areas and snowballed into full-fledged anti-India riots. The security forces did what they have been doing all summer - shooting into the stone-throwing crowds. Eighteen civilians died in Kashmir's bloodest day this summer, taking the toll to more than 80 in recent months.

This is clearly beginning to look like the biggest challenge to Indian rule in Kashmir in more than a decade. The protests have also begun to spread outside the valley - some recent ones have taken place in Muslim-dominated pockets of Jammu, the bit of Kashmir where Hindus are in the majority and which has been peaceful so far.

Most believe that the government has itself to blame for the current mess in Kashmir. The common perception is that it didn't fix the leaking roofs when the sun was shining in the valley - the months of relative peace, booming tourist traffic. Now the authorities are groping around for administrative solutions to fix the festering wounds - they are under pressure to water down or even scrap the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act or to move security forces out of the bigger towns.

But most believe that this kind of tinkering, however important, would not be enough. The time has come for the government to think big - and be imaginative - and launch the beginnings of a political solution to bring peace to the valley. Bringing the hardline separatists on board will be key to any solution - the octogenarian separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, by default, is the only leader with credibility among people in the valley because of his consistently obdurate pro-Pakistan, pro-secessionist stand. Some believe that India's cussedness in refusing to talk to Mr Geelani is costing Kashmir dear - the leader appeared to have mellowed, leaving Pakistan out of the equation in his recent roadmap to restore peace in the valley. Pakistan could perhaps be worked into the matrix of a political solution at some later stage. But for the moment, India needs to show initiative and come up with some guarantees and time-bound plans to foster political reconciliation and sow the seeds of a political solution. Without this, the stone-throwing protesters may give way to Kalashnikov-wielding rebels from within the valley and across the border, in a return to full-blown bloody militancy.

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