Kashmir autonomy proposal draws ire from both sides

Separatist leaders are unimpressed and quick to reject Indian prime minister's initiative while Hindu nationalists are outraged and calling for annexation.

MUMBAI // The offer by the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to give Kashmir a greater degree of political autonomy has received a tepid response from the state's separatist leaders. It has also provoked outrage among Hindu nationalists, who are demanding that the entire region be integrated into the Indian state.

Against a backdrop of two months of anti-India rioting in the Kashmir Valley in which more than 50 people have died, Mr Singh this week asked Kashmiri Muslims to "give peace a chance" and called for a political solution "that addresses the alienation and emotional needs" of Kashmiris. He said his government would consider any consensus proposal for Kashmiri autonomy as long as it remained "within the ambit of the constitution".

Although most people inside and outside the Himalyan state reacted with scepticism to Mr Singh's overture on Tuesday, analysts say his offer marks a radical shift in New Delhi's policy on Kashmir, a territory claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, which have fought two wars over it. It is a sign, they say, that India has warmed to the idea of relaxing its political domination over Kashmir, if not granting it complete freedom - a move that many observers have long claimed is the only viable solution to the territorial dispute that erupted into a full-blown separatist struggle more than two decades ago.

"[Singh's statement] marks a welcome change from the imperious statements that used to emanate from New Delhi, dismissing all public outburst as the handiwork of pro-Pakistan agents," said Madhu Kishwar, a professor at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Ms Kishwar warned, however, "it would be naive to believe that the PM's appeal for calm will work like a magic wand in the valley."

Separatist leaders were quick to reject Mr Singh's initiative, in which the Indian leader also urged a "jobs plan" for Indian Kashmir, where unemployment among young people is high. They said independence, not autonomy, was the only solution to the conflict. "Kashmiris must be given the right to self-determination. Nothing more, nothing less," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the moderate faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a coalition Kashmiri separatist groups. "[Singh] may have good intentions, but in Kashmir, India always makes a statement through the barrel of the gun. We are interested in conflict resolution, while he is still talking in terms of crisis management."

Rejecting Mr Singh's proposal for Kashmir, Yogi Adityanath, an MP from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, remarked in parliament on Wednesday: "Such announcements help terrorists, separatists, and lower the morale of the security forces." He added that his party was open to discussing any other solution that did not "compromise" the sovereignty of India. Hindu nationalists were equally dismissive. For the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist political organisation, autonomy for Kashmir is an "intolerable" idea, especially if it implies "Balkanisation" of the Indian state.

In a editorial in its weekly Organiser, the RSS called the people of Indian-controlled Kashmir a "pampered lot" because of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which accords the state a "special status". Meanwhile, analysts cautioned against confusing autonomy for Kashmir with secession. "Autonomy must not be viewed as a dirty word," said Amitabh Mattoo, a professor of international studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "Autonomy is about empowering people, making people feel that they belong [to the state]. It is synonymous with decentralisation and devolution of power - phrases that have been on the charter of virtually every political party in India. It also means greater political space ? and power flowing to the grassroots."

Sheikh Shaukat Hussain, a professor of law at Kashmir University in Srinagar, the state's summer capital, said no matter how much the prospects for greater autonomy have improved in the wake of Mr Singh's declaration, his promises ring hollow in the Kashmir Valley. "These promises have been made before, but New Delhi has not delivered them," he said. "Kashmiris don't take them seriously anymore." A new round of violence erupted in the Kashmir Valley in early June after the death of a 17-year-old boy struck by a police tear-gas shell. Since then, stone-throwing demonstrators have defied curfews and protested almost daily, earning the label "Kashmiri intifadah" in the Indian media. In the past two weeks alone, 33 people have been killed in clashes with Indian security personnel.

Mr Hussain said the only way to end the violence was for New Delhi to withdraw its troops from civilian areas of the valley, and "confine them to the border". "We need actions from New Delhi," he said. "Not just empty words." In the disputed region, there is one soldier for every 20 Kashmiris, one of the highest soldier-to-civilian ratios in the world. When militancy first flared in 1989, 36,000 Indian troops were deployed in the region. Since then, the number has swelled to 500,000, even though militancy, by the government's own admission, is less active.

The number of Islamic militants operating in the valley has fallen from nearly 10,000 in the early 1990s to fewer than 500 now, according to the state's police department. @EMail:achopra@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse