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Kashmir crisis comes full circle

By Andrew Whitehead
BBC World Service

Indian soldier in Kashmir
The Indian government says that Kashmir faces a brighter future

As the Kashmir valley prepares for a new state government and a new year, it must seem to some as if the Kashmir crisis has come full circle over the past 20 years.

Indian-administered Kashmir enters 2009 with a member of the Abdullah family poised to be the state chief minister - at the head of a coalition that brings together the Abdullahs' regional party, the National Conference, with India's governing Congress party.

That's just as it was when the bitter separatist insurgency erupted in Kashmir in 1989.

Some commentators, particularly in India, have been encouraged by recent events to suggest that a corner has been turned in the long-running Kashmir crisis.

They point to the good turnout in the recent state elections and the success of parties regarded as "pro-India" - along with a decline in the level of armed militancy.

Accomplished politician

It's not that simple. Kashmir continues to face profound challenges in the coming year. And there is still no sign of a lasting solution to one of the world's longest-running conflicts.

SIXTY YEARS OF CONFLICT
Indian soldier in Srinagar
1947: India and Pakistan gain independence - fighting breaks out in Kashmir
1949: A ceasefire line agreed dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan
1965: India and Pakistan fight a second war over Kashmir
1989: Anti-India separatist insurgency erupts in Kashmir
1999: India and Pakistan fight an undeclared war in mountains overlooking Kashmir
2008: State elections in Kashmir - after biggest anti-India protests for a decade
2009: New coalition state government faces stiff challenges in delivering better governance
Certainly the hardline separatists' call for a poll boycott received limited support. And in a part of India where over the decades there have been many complaints of rigged elections, this time - as last - polling and counting seems to have been relatively untarnished.

Yet a close look at the recent elections - in the Kashmir valley at least - suggests little change in the relative strengths of the two main Kashmiri parties, the National Conference and the rival People's Democratic Party who are sometimes described as "soft separatists".

Omar Abdullah, 38 years old, is about to follow his father and grandfather in becoming the chief minister of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

He is an accomplished politician and has served as India's junior foreign minister - but he still has to demonstrate that he can run an administration and win and keep the trust of a bruised and suspicious citizenry.

Although Omar Abdullah's party is often seen as pro-India, both main Kashmiri parties have been sharply critical of India's policy towards Kashmir and the actions of Indian security forces.

They are prepared to tolerate Indian rule, and are opposed to armed action by separatist militants, but want much more far-reaching autonomy for Kashmir than Delhi is prepared to countenance and the involvement of separatists in resolving the Kashmir issue.

"The separatists should not feel alienated and should be brought into the mainstream to talk," former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah declared as his party's election victory became apparent.

Kashmiri nationalism

The outcome of the recent state elections does not mean that Kashmiris are fully reconciled to Indian rule or that their sense of grievance has abated.

Protest in Srinagar
Street protests took place throughout 2008

Indeed the past year saw the biggest mass protests against Indian rule in Kashmir for more than a decade. Tens of thousands of young Kashmiris took to the streets for the first time. The demonstrations were non-violent - though dozens died when Indian security forces opened fire.

The coming year will indicate whether these protests portend a new style of Kashmiri nationalism - or whether this was a remarkable but passing episode in the region's unhappy recent history.

The protests of 2008 were neither called for nor co-opted by the armed separatist groups. The level of militant violence in Kashmir fell in the past year. The hardline separatist groups appear to be a diminishing force.

But Indian security officials have been reported as saying that there are still several hundred armed separatists active in Indian-ruled Kashmir - so the threat may be less acute, but it's still there.

Armed groups are now increasingly choosing targets elsewhere. The Indian authorities hold Lashkar-e-Taiba to blame for November's brutal attacks on Mumbai. Lashkar-e-Taiba's main field of operations has been Kashmir, though it's believed that only a modest proportion of its members are Kashmiri.

The Mumbai attacks hold grave repercussions for Kashmir. They have again plunged relations between India and Pakistan into deep crisis. And as Kashmir has been the main contested issue - and principal battleground - between these now nuclear-armed neighbours ever since independence in 1947, that's not good news for Kashmiris.

Unless relations with Pakistan are repaired, it's difficult to see how progress can be made towards a lasting settlement of the Kashmir dispute. And until that is achieved, then it may remain difficult for Kashmir's parties to demonstrate that conventional politics is the best way of resolving grievances.



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