/ 25 February 2009

Kashmiri elections grant India a ‘lifeline’

India has been granted a ”lifeline” after most Kashmiris voted in landmark elections but the government must avoid complacency and intransigence if it is to bring peace, Indian Kashmir’s new leader said on Tuesday.

But the bad timing of an economic slowdown, a general election and the diplomatic aftermath of November’s Mumbai attacks mean quick progress in the disputed region will be almost impossible, Omar Abdullah told Reuters in an interview.

”The opportunity is enormous,” Chief Minister Abdullah said in a house surrounded by photos of a family that has dominated Kashmir for decades. His grandfather was Sheikh Abdullah, the state’s best-known leader known as the ”Lion of Kashmir” for his defiance against New Delhi and his subsequent imprisonment for nearly 20 years.

”But we shouldn’t underestimate the extent of the challenges we face,” he added. ”There is a bad timing.”

Abdullah (38) emerged as chief minister in the disputed region in January after his National Conference party and India’s ruling Congress party defied a separatist boycott to win the election and forge a coalition government.

Many Kashmiris saw his victory as bringing hope that some deal could be reached to help end a conflict that has provoked two of India and Pakistan’s three wars.

Kashmir was convulsed last year by the biggest pro-separatist protests since 1947 when the sub-continent was divided into Muslim Pakistan and mostly Hindu India. After the Mumbai attacks sparked more diplomatic tension, there was some international pressure on India to find a solution to Kashmir.

The fact that the two-decades-old insurgency has waned should not be taken as an excuse to sit back, Abdullah said.

”New Delhi made the mistake of convincing itself that because tourist numbers were up, violence levels were down, that the Kashmir issue had kind of buried itself,” Abdullah said.

”New Delhi has really been handed a lifeline through this election and they need to capitalise on that.”

Indian pettiness?
Abdullah says it is almost impossible in his new job not to offend either Kashmir or the rest of India, and his comments reflect his efforts to tread a fine line between the two.

He criticised the killing of two Muslim youths at the weekend in an incident blamed on the army which sparked street protests, calling it a ”huge setback”.

He also blamed the government for delays in granting separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq a visa for his Kashmiri-origin American wife.

”Why would you want to talk to us if we were going to deny a simple thing like a visa to his wife?” he said.

But he felt there were signs of political will in New Delhi, and said he hoped secret talks between India and Pakistan that nearly led to a deal on Kashmir in 2007 could be revived. The deal fell through and both sides have blamed each other.

The deal was reported to have been called a ”non-paper” — a diplomatic understanding that both sides need not sign.

”This non-paper was being circulated. It was autonomy, devolution, self-government,” he said. ”It basically meant that the central unit would have a little less control … We’d like to see this non-paper revived.”

The new state government is trying to get arrest orders brought last year against separatists rescinded, he said.

Any further moves will come after general elections due by May, when Abdullah said he may talk to separatist parties for the first time since last year’s protests.

”To be honest with you I haven’t sent out any [feelers] and I don’t think we will be sending out any until once we’ve got this Parliament election out of the way.” — Reuters