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Recent unrest in Kashmir has undermined peace prospects between nuclear powers. Meenakshi Ganguly looks at the suffering of Kashmiris caught in a cycle of violence

The last week of violence in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state has seen at least 20 people killed and hundreds more injured. The local economy is at a standstill. Tourism has dried up.

Pakistan and India traded angry words after Islamabad condemned the violence and called for international intervention. Since the neighbors have fought two wars over Jammu and Kashmir and come perilously close to nuclear blows several times since, held apart by pressure from the US and Europe, the world may try to wish the problem away, but it ignores this critical land at its own peril.

The protests in Jammu and Kashmir have been ongoing since June, but have turned increasingly violent igniting religious hatred.

The immediate trigger for current protests seemed innocuous. A tract of land was handed over to a trust to provide facilities during an annual Hindu pilgrimage called the Amarnath Yatra. What followed was a disproportionate outburst of fear, rumor and rage. Muslim Kashmiris were quick to believe it was ploy to populate the area with Hindus and alter the demography of the region. Hindus said that Kashmiri Muslims were opposed even to providing rest sheds and toilets to pilgrims. With state elections due soon, political parties advanced their causes while separatist groups led pro-secession marches.

New Delhi’s failure to act promptly allowed the violence to escalate. In the predominantly Muslim Kashmir valley hundreds of thousands gather on the streets, usually after noon prayers at the mosque, shouting slogans, starting fires and pelting stones, evoking memories of similar anti-India protests in 1989 and 1990. The protests in the predominantly Hindu Jammu areas are even more surprising. There have been daily demonstrations for weeks, with a violent enforcement of strikes and even protest suicides.

In Jammu, protesters insist that the Indian government only tries to appease Muslim sentiments in the valley, ignoring the claims of the minority Hindus. In 1990, tens of thousands of Hindus living in the Kashmir valley had to flee their ancestral homes because of threats and attacks. Many remain displaced now. In the Kashmir valley, fury against the government stems from the failure to punish troops that commit human rights violations. Protected by immunity laws that require government permissions to file charges, they seldom face a criminal prosecution.

The Indian government has long presented the Muslim-majority state in Jammu and Kashmir as a symbol of India’s identity as a secular state. That claim has been seriously challenged by the violence related to the Amarnath Yatra controversy. For some time, the influx of tourists, the drop in violence, and good turnouts in local elections had allowed officials to mistakenly believe that the Kashmir issue had been more or less resolved. But the Amarnath Yatra became a catalyst for the assertion of Muslim or Hindu identity and religious hatred, not just in Jammu and Kashmir, but in the rest of India.

When violence first erupted in 1990, hundreds were killed in indiscriminate firing on demonstrations. Indian security forces chose to quell the rebellion with unrestrained force, detaining people at will and torturing them in custody - leading to “disappearances” and custodial deaths. For almost two decades, Kashmiris have been caught between the troops and militants, each claiming to be fighting on behalf of Kashmiris. The lack of justice for these and subsequent abuses remains a deep wound in the state.

This time, India must order its troops to exercise restraint and encourage all parties and groups leading the protests to end their dispute peacefully. But for lasting peace, much more has to be done. The displaced need proper rehabilitation; an independent investigation must be launched to determine the fate of the “disappeared”; laws that provide immunity to troops who commit human rights violations have to be repealed; torture and arbitrary detentions must end.

Indian politicians have long had two favorite phrases for the troubled state: “winning hearts and minds” and the “healing touch.” The recent protests clearly demonstrate that the first effort has failed. If India’s leaders were introspective, they would wonder how much that has to do with the failure of the second.

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