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The Ugly Side of Paradise

August 22, 1995

Some years back, a tour guide in the Indian state of Kashmir told his charges that "men had gone mad trying to describe the beauty" of the Himalayan state. These days, people could go mad trying to concoct a solution to the violence that has erupted there again.

Last week a guerrilla group calling itself Al Faran beheaded a Norwegian, one of five foreign tourists it had taken hostage in Kashmir. Al Faran was unknown before it seized the hostages nearly two months ago. Its support is as minimal as its profile, judging by the widespread condemnation it has deservedly brought upon itself.

Rebel groups wanting Kashmir to become an independent nation or to become part of Pakistan unanimously condemned Al Faran. So did Pakistan, which has controlled one-third of the state and has fought two wars with India over Kashmir since both nations became independent from Britain in 1947.

The Indian government rightly has refused to negotiate with the kidnaper-killers, who have demanded the release of more than a dozen Kashmiri separatists from Indian prisons.

After several years of renewed violence in Kashmir and the deaths of at least 20,000 people, most of them civilians, India earlier this year took needed measures to try to calm tensions in the state. Most Indians are Hindus; Kashmir is the only Indian state where Muslims are a majority. Unfortunately, the government's repeal of an anti-terrorism law and its proposal for state elections were undermined by a fire last May that destroyed the Kashmir shrine of a Muslim saint. Kashmiris blamed the Indian army for the fire; India blamed Muslims.

Campaigners for Kashmiri independence are urged to look at the map and see how unlikely it is that a free state could survive. Those favoring joining Pakistan should realize how understandably intransigent India is on losing any of its territory. Kashmiris would do well instead to push New Delhi for more autonomy for the state while remaining part of India.

India's earlier heavy-handed tactics and abuses of civil liberties in Kashmir merited condemnation. So did Pakistan's support, at least verbal if not material, for the separatists. Now is the time for all sides to declare Al Faran an enemy and negotiate a solution to a decades-long problem.

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