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Let Kashmiri People Decide

September 15, 2002

Mohammad Yasin Malik once advocated violent rebellion against India's rule of the northern state of Kashmir, but after India jailed him for several years, he emerged to advocate nonviolence. He is the kind of Kashmiri leader India should seek to engage. Instead, the government arrested Malik for allegedly receiving money from foreigners and jailed him under the terms of a law that can keep him behind bars for months without trial.

As state elections in what is formally known as the state of Jammu and Kashmir begin Monday, the government has failed to reach out to a coalition of two dozen political organizations and discuss how to end 13 years of violence that has killed tens of thousands.

Kashmir is India's only predominantly Muslim state and was the cause of two of the three wars between India and Pakistan. Both claim the territory. Tensions in Kashmir this year led the two countries to station a million troops along their borders.

Eventually New Delhi and Islamabad will have to agree on the status of Kashmir, but the starting point should be the wishes of the Kashmiris. Some want alliance with Pakistan, others independence, others continued inclusion in India. But governments in New Delhi have rigged balloting in the state for years to ensure local legislatures amenable to New Delhi's wishes. They have pounded their political anvil with a ferocious military hammer, using violence in the state at every turn.

Pakistan, meanwhile, has let terrorists train on its land and slip into India on murderous rampages. Washington pressured Pakistan into agreeing to stop those forays, but extremists already in Kashmir continue to attack. Last week, they killed a state government minister and several supporters at an election rally.

The main coalition of opposition political groups, of which Malik is a leader, has vowed to boycott the elections, which continue into October. The coalition insists that federal and state governments release jailed political leaders and stop human rights abuses. Those reasonable demands have been rejected. Separately, Muslim militants have murdered candidates who have defied orders not to take part in the elections.

India should have encouraged full participation in free and fair elections, rather than kept Malik and others in jail. Washington has a major stake in peace between India and Pakistan and must keep the pressure on both sides to solve the main sticking point: Kashmir.

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