Kashmir: Paradise Lost

An Indian soldier stands guard 06 July, 2001 (06 July) on a road near the Kashmiri border township of Uri, 100 kilometers north of Srinagar, ahead of the 14-16 July India-Pakistan summit. Uri, the closest town to the Line of Control (LoC) -- the demarcation that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, has witnessed cross-border shelling between Indian and Pakistani troops in the past leading to civilian causalities and destruction of property.

SRINAGAR, India, July 10 (AFP) - "Where World Ends and Paradise Begins" reads the roadside hoarding along the pass that serves as the entrance to the Kashmir valley.

The signboard's backdrop of a huge Himalayan mountain veined with snow-fed streams gives no indication of the blood that has flowed across the valley over the past decade.

"Paradise" ended in 1989 when a Muslim insurgency against Indian rule transformed Kashmir into a battleground between  Kashmiri freedom fighters and an oppressive Indian security presence.

The tourists who used to flock to Kashmir's mountains, lakes and houseboats have all but disappeared, as have the thousands of Indian couples who chose the valley as their honeymoon destination.

According to official Indian figures, the battle between Indian troops and Muslim freedom fighters have resulted in more than 35,000 lives since 1989 and left many more maimed.  But Muslim groups say almost twice as many people have died as a result of the conflict

Next weekend's Indo-Pakistan peace summit, at which Kashmir will be one of the main topics under discussion, has kindled some hopes of progress towards a solution.

But vested interests on both sides are firmly entrenched.

"The struggle is in force to secede Kashmir from India and join it with neighboring Pakistan," said Salim Hashmi, spokesman for the dominant Kashmiri group, Hizbul Mujahideen.

"Our just struggle will continue till it reaches its logical conclusion," Hashmi said.

Kashmir was ruled by an unpopular Hindu maharajah, Hari Singh, at the time of partition in 1947.

Singh vacillated between joining India and Pakistan and called for independence. But faced with a bloody battle with Pashtun tribes supported by Pakistan, he was forced to seek Indian help and accept New Delhi's sovereignty.

The conflict ended in January 1949 under a ceasefire brokered by the United Nations and Kashmir was divided into two -- a third going to Pakistan and the rest to India.

India and Pakistan have fought two full-scale wars over Kashmir and came close to a third in the summer of 1999 when Indian troops fought a 10-week battle with Pakistan-backed forces in border region of Kargil.

Today, there are nearly 400,000 Indian troops in Kashmir and barely a day passes without the announcement of fresh killings and shootouts.

"Kashmir is the unfinished agenda of 1947," said Kashmiri newspaper owner and editor Tahir Mohiudin. "Kashmiris are paying the price with their lives."

Many people here prefer the idea of total independence rather than life with India or Pakistan.

"The majority of people in Kashmir want to be independent," said Javed Mir, vice chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which launched the 1989 independence movement.

The JKLF, which stopped fighting in 1994 to push its agenda at a political level instead, is furious that Kashmiris are being excluded from the July 15 summit between Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

"The two countries have no right to sit down for talks and decide about the future of Kashmir," said JKLF general secretary Bashir Bhat. "It is only the people who can decide about their fate."

Surveys conducted by Indian magazines and newspapers indicate that most Kashhmiris favor independence, but pro-Pakistani groups insist they are in the majority.

"The entire population is for Pakistan," said Aasiya Andrabi, the head of the top women's separatist group, Daughters of Faith.

Some groups have pledged to continue fighting no matter what the outcome of the peace summit.

"Our fight will continue till Indian army is no longer in Kashmir," said Abu Osama, spokesman for the powerful Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba outfit.

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