Page last updated at 11:10 GMT, Friday, 22 August 2008 12:10 UK

Kashmir - missed chances for peace

Sumantra Bose on the lessons to be learned from the current unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir.

A Kashmiri family in Srinagar
'Windows of opportunity to solve problems don't come often'

South Ossetia and Kashmir have something in common.

The renewed troubles in both places are a reminder that 'frozen' conflicts tend to simmer away and then erupt at regular if unpredictable intervals, with destabilising consequences for the already volatile regions around them.

A 'let sleeping dogs lie' approach is unwise. Without peace processes leading to political settlements, such flashpoints remain a breeding ground for recurring crises.

Kashmir last dominated world headlines in 2002, when India and Pakistan mobilised a million troops on the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border that divides the territory, contested since 1947, and on the international frontier between the two countries.

That stand-off was precipitated by a suicide raid in December 2001 on India's parliament in New Delhi, and a massacre in May 2002 of families of Indian soldiers near the city of Jammu, in Indian-administered Kashmir's Hindu-majority south.

Symbolic breakthrough

Prior to that, the Indian and Pakistani militaries fought a two-month war in the summer of 1999 on a stretch of the LoC in the remote Himalayas, in Ladakh's Kargil district, after the LoC there was infiltrated by Pakistani army units.

That conflict too threatened to escalate into a wider war between countries which had tested nuclear weapons just a year earlier, in May 1998.

In late 2003, a ceasefire on the LoC took hold, and since 2004 relations between India and Pakistan have seen a thaw.

But four years later, it is clear that the thaw has not developed into a serious peace process, and that a settlement to the Kashmir dispute is nowhere on the horizon.

In April 2005, a fortnightly cross-LoC bus service was launched between Srinagar, the capital of the Kashmir Valley and the largest city in Indian-administered Kashmir, and Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

Demonstration in Srinagar
Kashmir has seen weeks of violent protests

But this was a symbolic breakthrough. Subsequently, there was no progress in the India-Pakistan dialogue on substantive aspects of the Kashmir problem, even on such relatively peripheral issues as the de-militarisation of the Siachen glacier on the northern fringes of the territory.

The paralysed nature of the talks seemed bearable since the insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir since 1990 ebbed during these years.

But in fact the past few years of relative calm represent a major missed opportunity to engage all communities and factions in Kashmir in a genuine and credible - as distinct from an illusory and vacuous - peace process.

Any notion that the Kashmir conflict has been successfully put in cold-storage has been exposed as a delusion during the summer of 2008.

The Kashmir valley, though overwhelmingly Muslim, has one of the most sacred sites of Hinduism, the faith of the majority in India. This is an ice-formation located inside a remote cave that is regarded as a manifestation of the god Shiva.

Since its discovery in the mid-19th century, the cave-deity has attracted masses of pilgrims every summer from India and beyond.

This May, the government of Indian-administered Kashmir decided to transfer 100 acres of land on a mountain route leading to the shrine to a Hindu religious trust that has jurisdiction over the pilgrimage.

This sparked widespread protests in the valley through June, and six civilians were killed. The decision was then rescinded in early July, and this in turn triggered a large-scale and sustained protest campaign in the Hindu-majority districts around the city of Jammu.

Indian soldiers in Kashmir
'The turmoil comes at an uncertain time for India-Pakistan relations'

The Jammu agitation caused disruption to traffic on a highway running from Srinagar to Jammu and beyond that is the valley's lifeline.

In early August this sparked renewed protests in the valley, and in the second week of August over 20 people died there when Indian security forces opened fire on large marches.

The spectacle of hundreds of thousands marching and protesting in both regions needs an explanation.

The annual pilgrimage, apart from being a source of livelihood to many local Muslims, fits well with the valley's traditions of religious syncretism and has become an integral part of its culture. And the event plays no role in the lives of Jammu's Hindus, most of whom live several hundred kilometres south of the pilgrimage-zone.

Sense of oppression

The explanation is that both groups are, albeit in different ways, hostages to the frozen-yet-simmering Kashmir dispute.

The valley's population feels that their homeland is essentially occupied, and harbours a deep sense of oppression over several decades and generations by Indian governments.

This powerful sense of unmitigated grievance was triggered by yet another 'slight' - the decision to transfer land without any consultation with the valley's people.

Jammu's Hindus have long felt bypassed and neglected as a minority in Indian-administered Kashmir. They viewed the subsequent revocation of the transfer as yet another cave-in to the valley's more numerous Muslims, and reacted with raw anger.

The competing mass mobilisations have precedents.

The Jammu agitation is reminiscent of 1952-53, when the same areas in the Jammu region's Hindu-majority south were convulsed by a movement calling for full integration of Indian-administered Kashmir with the Indian Union, meaning the cancellation of Indian-administered Kashmir's autonomous status, recognised in India's constitution and re-affirmed in 1952 in talks between India's prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Kashmiri Muslim leader Sheikh Abdullah.

Fishing on Dal Lake
'Frozen conflicts don't stay frozen'

The ferment in the Kashmir Valley is a throwback to the turbulent winter of 1963-64, when the theft of what Muslims believe to be a hair of the Prophet Mohammad from Srinagar's Hazratbal shrine ignited massive protests in the valley.

Although the trigger was ostensibly a religious issue, the unrest resulted from pent-up resentment at a decade of Delhi's Kashmir policies - which included the removal from office and incarceration of Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah, the de facto scrapping of Indian-administered Kashmir's self-rule powers, and the use of police methods to repress protest and silence dissent.

But there is no precedent to both the major regions in Indian-administered Kashmir simultaneously plunging into turmoil.

The turmoil comes at an uncertain time for India-Pakistan relations.

Last month, there were localised ceasefire violations on the LoC, militant bombs killed 50 people in India's Gujarat state, and India's embassy in Kabul was attacked in a deadly suicide-bombing.

Armed Islamist groups in Kashmir have been lying low since the post-2004 thaw, but they remain present and dangerous.

The lesson? Frozen conflicts don't stay frozen, and windows of opportunity to make real progress towards solutions don't come often. Stalling on such opportunities can be perilous.

Sumantra Bose is professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics. He is the author of Contested Lands: Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus and Sri Lanka, published by Harvard University Press.

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