In New Dehli
The situation in Kashmir – whose ownership India and Pakistan dispute while controlling it in parts – has changed in a matter of months from “near normalcy” to full-throated cries for “azadi” (freedom).
Curfews and marches by thousands of defiant Kashmiris demanding freedom or merger with Pakistan have virtually paralysed the administration of the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Lately, with India and Pakistan engaging in a peace dialogue, militancy by separatists has been on a decline. But the current wave of protests could unhinge the peace process between the South Asian neighbours.
The protests have its genesis in an ill-conceived decision by the state administration to transfer 40ha of forest land to a board that administers the Hindu cave temple of Amarnath in the Himalayas. Thousands of Hindu pilgrims from all over India undertake the pilgrimage during the two months from June when the shrine is open.
The decision was seen by many in Kashmir valley as a move to create Israeli-type Hindu settlements in India’s only Muslim dominated state.
Protests against the land transfer led to revoking of the decision, which in turn triggered counter-protests from Hindus in Jammu region, demanding restoration of the earlier order.
Already the controversy has led to the fall of the Congress-led state government.
Police firings in Jammu as well as Kashmir regions to quell mobs have claimed many lives, but Kashmiris say the casualties are much higher in the valley - 30 killed and 500 injured against three killed and dozens injured in Jammu – giving ammunition to the separatists charge that the police action was discriminatory against the Muslims.
The people of Jammu, on the other hand, accuse the government of appeasing Muslim separatists at the cost of national unity, with eyes only on upcoming elections.
With the rising tide of separatism in Kashmir, the land transfer to the shrine board has been relegated to the background. It is now the question of the valley’s accession to the Indian union.
How the government handles this sensitive issue will determine the course of events, not only in India but elsewhere in South Asia, as most countries of the region face separatist wars of one kind or another.