By SOMINI SENGUPTA
JAMMU, Kashmir, Jan. 12 To speak to many Kashmiris today is to be told of Mohandas K. Gandhi's visit here in 1947. As Hindus and Muslims slaughtered each other during the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, Kashmiris spared each other the same fate. Gandhi described the Kashmir valley as a ray of hope in the darkness.
To speak to many Kashmiris today is also to be told of the unspeakable curse that has since fallen on them.
In recent days, a Kashmiri teenager was set ablaze by an Indian paramilitary officer. Over the last week, dozens of heavily armed militants, many of them Pakistani citizens, were killed by Indian security forces. Indian and Pakistani forces exchanged fire virtually every day across the cease-fire line that divides the two countries. A 4-year-old boy was killed by Pakistani fire on Thursday while playing in the fields in his Indian village. Three days before, five Pakistanis, including two women and two young boys, were injured by Indian mortar fire.
These things are routine.
In Kashmir today lies the detritus of partition. This valley is disputed territory, and the two nuclear-armed rivals are poised for what could be their fourth war in 53 years. Pakistan controls about a third of Kashmir. India controls the rest as part of its vast Jammu and Kashmir province.
But Kashmir, nestled strategically in the Himalayas, with its saffron fields and lakes hemmed by houseboats, is more than prime real estate. The claim over Kashmir goes to the heart of the identities of these two rivals. For Pakistan, its neighbor's claim over what is India's only Muslim majority state, is the object of moral outrage. Pakistan's reason for being was to create a homeland where the subcontinent's Muslims could live free and prosper, not under the thumb of Hindu-dominated India. As Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then the foreign minister and later the president of Pakistan, declared in 1964, "Kashmir must be liberated if Pakistan is to have its full meaning."
Kashmir has also been essential to the Indian national project from the start: to lose Kashmir to Pakistan would be to lose its mantle as a secular, multiethnic democracy. India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, an ardent secularist who vehemently opposed carving the subcontinent along religious lines, was born to a Brahmin family from Kashmir. His sentimentality about the place infuses Indian feelings about Kashmir today.
"Many Indians think something would be diminished in our lives if Kashmir were to go," said Kanti Bajpai, a international relations professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "Implicit in the Indian argument is that whatever you might say, we're a good, functioning democracy. We can probably work this out. But our neighbor is not letting us work it out."
India accuses Pakistan of waging a proxy war in Kashmir by arming and training militants, first Kashmiris and then bands of radical Islamists from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan says it provides only moral and diplomatic succor to the Kashmiri freedom struggle.
The ardor of these rivals has squeezed Kashmir dry. Armed men around every corner. A road built around Dal Lake, the jewel of Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital, lies in disrepair because of land mine explosions. Human rights groups have repeatedly raised an outcry about disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
The 12-year-old insurgency in Kashmir has left 35,000 dead, according to Indian government estimates. Others believe that the number is twice as high. Last year was the deadliest to date.
Kashmir's troubles may be a legacy of partition, but back then Kashmiris could hardly have foreseen that they would be caught in such interminable carnage, mired in such an intractable political bog.
The troubles began with the British ready to quit India in a hurry and the dillydallying maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir, a Hindu ruler, not especially popular with his mostly Muslim subjects. Like his counterparts in the other 561 princely states, the maharajah, Hari Singh, was instructed by the British to choose between India and Pakistan.
The maharajah was tardy in choosing. But his mind was made up when Pathan tribesmen from what is now Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province stormed into his kingdom. He fled Srinagar for Jammu, the Hindu-majority city to the south, and he struck a swift deal with India.
Pakistan has never seen the maharajah's decision as legitimate. By Pakistan's logic of partition, Kashmir, with its Muslim majority, belonged to Pakistan. (Though the province of Jammu and Kashmir has a Muslim majority over all, Jammu's population is nearly two-thirds Hindu, and Ladakh, to the east, is equal parts Buddhist and Muslim.)
That first India-Pakistan war, which began in 1947, lasted for more than a year. When it was over, Pakistan had seized a swath of northwestern Kashmir. India agreed to hold a plebiscite under international monitoring, to allow Kashmiris to choose which nation they wanted to join. India was confident of its victory. Sheik Abdullah, the popular Kashmiri leader who helped drive out the tribesmen, was a close Nehru ally.
Balraj Puri, a veteran of those times, recalls hundreds of thousands of people standing in Lal Chowk, Srinagar's main square, shouting anti-Pakistan slogans. "It was an opportunity for the greatest triumph of Indian secularism," he said. "But India failed to maintain that advantage."
The plebiscite never happened. It became the mantra for Pakistani outrage against India.
Neither India nor Pakistan pulled its troops from Kashmir, a prerequisite for the vote. Cold war calculations came into the picture, and the United States adopted Pakistan as its ally in the region. Nehru dug in his heels. There would be no plebiscite anytime soon. Any suggestion of regional autonomy was frowned upon. In 1953, when Sheik Abdullah made noises about a Kashmir free from Indian and Pakistani rule, Nehru removed him from his post as chief minister and jailed him.
A sense of betrayal began to swell among Kashmiris. Until that moment, there had been no organized protests against India, said Muhammad Ishaq Khan, a historian at Kashmir University in Srinagar. "Sheik Abdullah believed, Kashmiris believed that India had been their supporter," said Mr. Khan, himself a Kashmiri. "A problem which was not intractable appeared to become so."
Elections were eventually held in Kashmir, but they were dismissed as rigged. By 1989, a Kashmiri guerrilla movement was hatched. Young men, many of them college-educated and full of idealistic fervor, mounted a bloody insurgency against Indian rule. The separatists won support among many Kashmiris, their cause aided by the might of the Indian security forces.
Within months, Srinagar's Brahmins fled, leaving behind homes and temples that have since been transformed into barracks for Indian paramilitary forces.
The Kashmiri insurgency has been radically transformed in the last 12 years with the introduction of better- armed and better-trained jihadis, or holy warriors, based in Pakistan and fueled by Islamist movements in Afghanistan and beyond.
Today, of the 2,400 militants active in the Kashmir valley alone, 1,400 are foreigners, according to Border Security Force estimates. The two deadliest groups Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba are both based in Pakistan, and they have prompted a crackdown by the Indian security forces.
Efforts for peace bubbled up in 1998. A historic bus route was opened from Delhi to Lahore, and both sides pledged to talk about Kashmir.
Then war broke out here for a third time in the summer of 1999, after Pakistani troops broke through the cease-fire line at a place called Kargil. Before the 10-week standoff was over, 1,000 people were killed on both sides.
The end of the Kargil fighting only intensified the militancy here. In village after village in Jammu, militants picked off Hindus suspected of being friendly to the security forces. Village defense councils, mostly made up of Hindus, were armed by the state. Army installations were attacked. The State Assembly in Srinagar was bombed last October. A temporary cease-fire between India and the largest militant group, Hizbul Mujahedeen, fizzled in late 2000, after New Delhi refused to involve Pakistan in Kashmir talks. The Dec. 13 attacks on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi halted any hopes for dialogue. Pakistani and Indian forces faced off at the border.
The competing claims to Kashmir have been complicated by the domestic politics on both sides of the Line of Control. A radical Islam, with goals of cleansing Muslim lands of infidels, has taken root in Pakistan. Hindu nationalists control the government in New Delhi, straining India's moral argument for Kashmir that Muslims can feel safe and prosper in secular India.