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Healing touch still absent in Kashmir

From Mukhtar Ahmad in Srinagar

Sayeed has come through with some electoral promises, but has failed to deliver on others.
Sayeed has come through with some electoral promises, but has failed to deliver on others.

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SRINAGAR, Indian-controlled Kashmir (CNN) -- One year into his term in office, the highest elected official in Indian-Kashmir says he is happy with what his government has achieved but acknowledges a lot more needs to be done to bring peace to the troubled region.

Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who took the reins of power on November 2 last year, says it's too short a timeframe to judge his work.

Sayeed's regional People's Democratic Party rules Jammu and Kashmir in a coalition with the mainstream Indian party, the Congress.

The parties joined hands after last year's blood-soaked election that ousted the National Conference, a pro-India Kashmiri party. Hundreds of people, including political party workers of all stripes, were killed when separatist rebels called for a boycott of the elections.

"My first year in power has been a year of planning. My second year should be seen as year of implementation," Sayeed said here recently.

But given the odds against which he is pitted, it would appear that the chief minister would need to perform several miracles to live up to the aspirations of ordinary Kashmiris.

But Mehbooba Mufti, the firebrand president of the People's Democratic Party and Sayeed's daughter, sees things differently.

"We haven't done very badly. For the first time in 14 years of ongoing militancy, tourism started showing signs of revival. Life started picking up despite little change in the security scenario."

Mehbooba says Kashmiris have welcomed Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's peace initiatives for the region.

On recent visits to Kashmir, Vajpayee announced economic and political packages aimed at ending the unrest. And she points to his offering the hand of friendship once again to Pakistan, despite what India calls its neighbor's betrayal in the heights of Kargil, in northern Kashmir, in 1999.

In February that year, Vajpayee had begun a process of diplomacy to resolve a wide range of issues between the two countries, including their 50-year-old dispute over Kashmir.

Months later, India said it had detected Pakistani troops in Kargil, on the Indian side of the Line of Control -- the de facto border between the two countries and the frontier that divides Kashmir into Indian and Pakistani parts. The dispute was defused when the United States leaned on Pakistan to pull back its troops.

Violence on the rise

Violence in Kashmir has surged in recent months.
Violence in Kashmir has surged in recent months.

Violence has gripped Jammu and Kashmir since 1989, when the separatist movement against Indian rule turned violent. Tens of thousands of people have been killed.

The separatist rebels want Kashmir, which has a mainly Muslim population, either to secede from India or join Pakistan. Jammu and Kashmir is India's only Muslim majority state .

In April this year, in the aftermath of Vajpayee's visit to the Kashmir Valley, Sayeed appeared to have effected a magic trick as violence recorded an all-time low.

Bonhomie and optimism even translated into a decision to hold a high-level, inter-state meet in Srinagar in August.

But violence moved back to center stage and suicidal militants known as fidayeen even carried out an attack in the heart of Srinagar city as the prime minister attended the inter-state meet.

Now, despite official assertions, the graph of violence remains more or less as it did during the previous government of Dr. Farooq Abdullah.

Recent militant attacks, their large cache of weapons and an ability to choose their targets has proved dealing with violence in Kashmir is a tall challenge even for a seasoned politician like Sayeed.

His most used metaphor, his "healing touch policy" -- a pledge to root out human rights abuses by Indian security forces -- has had mixed impact in the valley.

Promises

New Delhi has offered to open dialogue with seperatist leaders in Kashmir.
New Delhi has offered to open dialogue with seperatist leaders in Kashmir.

One of his main electoral promises, to disband the special operations group (SOG) of the local police, which he then said had earned notoriety for its high-handed ways in dealing with local people, remains unfulfilled.

Sayeed's supporters argue that even if the SOG has not been disbanded, its activities have been checked.

One electoral promise the chief minister has delivered on has been his ability to ensure that India's strict anti-terrorism legislation, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, is not extended to Jammu and Kashmir.

On other fronts, Sayeed's civic cleansing drive, which involved the demolition of hundreds of shops and houses violating zoning rules, has been deeply unpopular. And most locals say his promise to cleanse public life of corruption and provide an efficient and honest administration is still a dream.

On the efforts to resolve the Kashmir dispute, Sayeed had been maintaining all along that New Delhi should employ a high-powered emissary to engage separatist leaders in dialogue.

The Indian government's recent offer to hold talks with local separatist leaders, at the level of the number two man in New Delhi, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, is seen as a vindication of Sayeed's approach.

The lofty hopes and modest delivery by the architect of the healing touch policy was highlighted in a recent play staged by school children -- a performance attended by the chief minister.

A fatally injured bird is brought to a sage meditating in the forest. The sage's disciples ask the holy man to deliver the healing touch and bring the bird back to life.

The sage replies, "The bird's wound is much deeper and dangerous. I'm afraid the healing touch might not work in this case."

An analogy, perhaps, of the position Kashmir finds itself in, although the chief minister would insist he has not given up hope even if the holy man might have.


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