Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Srinagar under curfew in late June

Global Times (China), July 16

All it took was an electrical short circuit that reduced a mosque to ashes to make Indian-controlled Kashmir resemble the bad days of 2010. Late last month, the over 200-year-old Sufi shrine of Peer Dastageer Sahib in the capital Srinagar was set ablaze in what officials said was a wiring issue.

But this was considered suspicious by most Kashmiris, distrustful of the Indian state and convinced it was an act of arson given there was a power cut at the time and that when the fire brigade eventually showed up, most trucks had no water onboard.

As always in conflict zones, rumors travel fast and help turn up the heat. Protesters swarmed onto the streets, stones were thrown, and the military responded with day long curfews and by putting separatist leaders under house arrest.

To Kashmiris, this brought back the memories of the weekly shutdowns and demonstrations in Srinagar in 2010, when protesters and the military faced off in the worst year of violence since the 1990s, leaving 112 Kashmiris dead.

Then a week after Srinagar's second most holy shrine burned down, a rumor started spreading that a Shia mosque on the outskirts of the city was in flames, also attributed to an electrical wiring failure.

Although it turned out later that the mosque and a Quran were desecrated and there was no fire, the incident was enough for shops to shut, the streets to empty and for people to remain on edge.

How the fire at the Sufi shrine started is under investigation, but no statements from the authorities have been forthcoming.

The popular consensus is that some organization, some hidden hand, wanted to make Kashmir boil again, nearly two years to the day that protests started on June 11, 2010, when the Indian army shot unarmed demonstrators.

The events of 2010 are barely evident now. The slogans of "Go India, Go Back" and "Indian dogs go home" that were chalked on streets have been washed away and those on walls painted over, but demands for Azadi, freedom, remain.

According to a survey by London-based think tank Chatham House published in 2010, the first of its kind, 43 percent of the total adult population want independence, particularly in the Kashmir Valley Division, between 75 and 95 percent, and 82 percent of those polled in Srinagar.

Yet New Delhi has refused to offer a referendum, despite UN resolutions dating back to 1948 to do so.

As long as there is no viable resolution to the dispute in Kashmir, one of the world's longest running conflicts that has left 70,000 Kashmiris dead since 1989 and remains one of the most militarized places on earth, any small spark could trigger a return to 2010 and a renewed call by Kashmiris for freedom.

While there have been no further incidents, the fire and the attack on the mosque highlight how fragile the relative peace has been in Kashmir since the situation calmed down in early 2011.

Tourism, which accounts for an estimated 15 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), had returned, but the curfews prompted cancellations and are bad publicity.

Kashmir's geographically strategic location is of course a stumbling block to any solution, whether in terms of greater autonomy or independence. But around half of India's 1.3 million strong army is deployed in Kashmir alone. They are there to keep the Kashmiris check rather than to patrol the Line of Control with Pakistan or the sparsely populated mountainous areas.

The international community has ignored Kashmir, and Kashmir is portrayed rather simply in the Indian media as a problem of Islamic militancy rather than conveying many of the deep seated issues prevalent in the state.

Kashmir remains a global flashpoint, and a potential trigger for conflict between two nuclear powers.

International bodies should give extra impetus to effort to maintain the  relatively quiet situation in order to get talks going again.

Otherwise, it will just take another short circuit for Kashmir to descend into chaos once again.

Photograph by Paul Cochrane


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