SRINAGAR, Jan 19 (IPS) - As war clouds hover over India and Pakistan, anxiety levels have risen in Kashmir, often described as the bone of contention between the South Asian neighbours
Bellicose posturing by the two countries, following the Nov. 26-29 terror strikes in Mumbai, has, according to analysts here, the potential of spiralling into yet another one of a series of wars fought over the territory by the two countries, created in 1947 following the decolonisation of the sub-continent.
”War between India and Pakistan appears to be a possibility given the course the two countries have taken,” Mohammad Sayeed Malik, a well-known, Srinagar-based political commentator told IPS. “If not checked, it may reach a point of no return and actual war would be impossible to avoid.”
The Mumbai attacks, which left 180 people dead, rudely interrupted the ‘composite dialogue,’ begun in February 2004 after the nuclear-armed neighbours restored diplomatic ties - downgraded in reaction to a similar armed attack on India’s parliament in December 2001.
Accusing Pakistan-based militant groups, Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), for staging the attack on Indian parliament, India massed troops along the border in the largest military mobilisation since the two countries went to war in 1971.
The LeT, set up to fight Indian rule in Kashmir, has now been implicated in the Mumbai attacks as well by India and by United States officials and analysts who have also linked it to Pakistan’s shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence.
In the aftermath of the 2001 attack, war between the neighbours was avoided by intense diplomatic activity led by the United States. But it took until February 2004 before the composite dialogue process - a serious effort aimed at confidence building, normalisation of bilateral relations and dispute resolution - could be put into place.
The peace process brought better diplomatic, trade and people-to-people contact across the 298-km, fenced and fortified Line of Control (LoC) that divides Indian Kashmir from the Pakistan-administered part of the territory and has served for decades as the de facto international border.
Most significantly, for people living along the LoC, the peace talks brought about a cessation of the constant exchange of artillery fire by the Indian and Pakistani armies across the border. Scores of civilians have been reported killed, maimed or displaced by the destructive exchanges.
“After the ceasefire, we had been living in a comfortable manner without any fear, but now we might again have go through the traumatic times before the ceasefire,” Rustum Gelani, a resident of the border town of Tangdar, told IPS over telephone.
Reports from the other towns near the LoC such as Uri and Poonch suggested that people were close to panic. “We would appeal the two countries to maintain the ceasefire,” said Abdul Gafoor, a resident of Poonch.
People living along the road leading to LoC in Tangdar, Uri and Poonch have reported seeing deployment of troops and equipment for several days now. “More military and machines are being stockpiled on the LoC… it looks like war is brewing up,” said Neik Mohammed, a resident.
Army officials have downplayed the activity as part of routine exercises, normally conducted at this time of the year. But one defence source said the moves were ”precautionary measures as our neighbour Pakistan is mobilising troops on its side of the border”.
Malik said that should war break out between India and Pakistan, Kashmiris would be the worst sufferers; socially, economically and politically. “It would wash away all the gains of the five-year-old peace process. The positive mood in the aftermath of the peaceful elections in Kashmir may vanish into thin air,” he said.
“During and after Gen. [Pervez] Musharraf’s rule, Pakistan had made quite a lot of progress in disengaging itself from active involvement in Kashmir… a war could reverse it,” Malik added.
Civil society and NGOs have been busy urging India and Pakistan to work towards de-escalating tension and peace-building. “We call upon India and Pakistan to sign the convention and treaty to ban production, stockpiling and use of cluster munitions and landmines,” said ActionAid’s Arjimand Talib, a peace activist.
”A war would seriously dent efforts at poverty eradication in the region and shift focus from development to further militarisation,” Talib added.
“After India felt that international pressure had started working on Pakistan, it has helped bring down tension levels. This should have been enough, but since India’s elections are just round the corner, one can’t be sure that the war hysteria will come down,” said Malik.
Tapan Bose, secretary general of the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD), told IPS that public anger projected in the media carried the danger of precipitating war, forgetting that ordinary people would suffer the consequences most.
“We have been so overwhelmed by the war jingoism of the media and sections of the state and upper middle class [because they were hit by the Mumbai attacks] that we forget what the peace process means for thousands of ordinary people,” Bose said. ”Who speaks for them?”