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In the Valley of Kashmir, a Struggle for Freedom Amid Fears of War : Rebellion: Kashmiris say they want independence, and friendly relations with both India and Pakistan. India's answer is the whip.

May 20, 1990|G.H. Jansen | G. H. Jansen has covered the Middle East for many years from a base in Cyprus; he has been on assignment in Kashmir

SRINAGAR, KASHMIR — Anyone walking the streets of the capital of Kashmir cannot fail to notice, at this time of year, the still snow-capped hills surrounding the town--some just beyond its outskirts, some farther away. Those hills have helped produce the Kashmir problem.

And no one could fail to notice the presence on the streets of very large numbers of heavily armed men of the Indian army and paramilitary forces: In some places on guard every 100 or even every 50 yards, behind sandbagged bunkers, both stationary and in trucks. They are the Kashmir problem today, as India and Pakistan move ominously closer to war over this disputed area.

Over the centuries, the hills have cut off the already remote Valley of Kashmir from the rest of the Indian subcontinent--especially for the three or four months of winter when the passes across the hills are snowbound.

This isolation has helped produce what is called Kashmiriat-- a close sense of a community, of a people--which has its own distinctive identity and culture and tradition. This goes back to the centuries before Christ; when the Kashmiri Hindus adopted Buddhism, they did so en masse, then returned to Hinduism en masse and later accepted Islam en masse: Now less than 5% of the Kashmiris are Hindus.

Today Kashmiriat solidarity is all too evident in the political sphere. The region was divided between Pakistan and India following fighting in 1947-48; their troops now face each other along a cease-fire line.

I have been meeting with Kashmiri journalists, lawyers, social workers and doctors, engineers, hoteliers and the inevitable taxi drivers. With one accord of heart and voice--an angry voice--they say they want nothing more to do with India. Finito. Unanimously, and only a little less vehemently, they say they want azadi --independence--with equally friendly relations with both India and Pakistan. When a people, even if only 3 million or 4 million strong, say with unanimity that they want to run their own affairs, the jinni is out of the bottle and it would be almost impossible to get it back in.

Kashmiriat is seen in action, peaceably, when a demonstration is called and hundreds of thousands of people turn out, sometimes half the population of Srinagar, and most significantly for this conservative society, with women in the vanguard. And it is seen in action, violently, in the guerrilla war being waged by the militants, the fish swimming freely in the water of their people. The Kashmir resistance has already settled into the pattern of the Palestinian intifada, ongoing violence with incidents of some sort every day: And the intifada has lasted for 2 1/2 years now.

In short, however many troops India puts into the valley--20,000 so far--it will never be able to end the azadi movement. It may suppress it for a time, but only for a time. The firm Kashmiri determination to be free is now a fact that is, or should be, as obvious as the surrounding hills.

As in other struggles, repression only toughens the resistance. The Kashmiris I talked to all spoke with special bitterness of the 17-day-long, round-the-clock curfew imposed on the valley last month--the holy month of Ramadan--by Jagmohan, the appointed Hindu governor who uses a single name. During that period not even the seriously ill, women in labor (500 births a day), the starving who had run out of food--no one was allowed to leave the house: Only the dead and a few mourners were allowed out. Yet the Kashmiris say "We are thankful to Jagmohan; he toughened us and united us in hardship and suffering and he fully revealed the ugly face of the Indian government." In extremis they fall back on the inbred stoicism of Islam.

The ineptitude of the Indian regime's military doctrine, and its inability to cope with armed insurgency, is being displayed once again in Kashmir, as earlier in Sri Lanka. A typical incident: In the sprawling, congested and slum-filled area of the town, a couple of militants emerge from a narrow alley and snipe at a passing patrol, then dive back into cover. The patrol whistles up reinforcement, finds no one when it arrives and in frustration roams the locality, killing civilians of all ages. This is called "killed in cross-fire." Or a "combing" operation is mounted with house-to-house searches: It has been estimated that three out of every 10 houses searched are trashed. There are random arrests, followed by torture. I have seen gruesome color photographs of torture victims.

Since January, about 350 civilians have been confirmed as killed by the Indian forces; the number of casualties inflicted by the militants among the forces is never revealed, but range upward of 1,200; 100 civilians--40 Hindus, 60 Muslims, suspected of being traitors or informers--have been killed by the militants.

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