Hindus depart as Muslims refuse to bow to India's power


Drifting along in a shikara, Kashmir's version of a gondola, one can be fooled by the mountains and tranquil waters of Dal Lake into believing that the troubles of the world are a million miles away. It is no wonder that up to nine years ago, this place was one of the greatest draws for tourists visiting India.

But now there is something chilling about Kashmir's picturesque scene. Heavily-armed soldiers line the shore of the lake, and behind them the Swiss-style chalets are empty and rundown. They are all that is left of those who have fled a war that has cost between 30,000 to 50,000 lives in the last nine years.

It is the Hindus who left. Targeted by Muslim militants, in 1990 about 150,000 made their way to refugee camps 300 km away. Some have since started new lives elsewhere in India; others, like Suhindar Kumar, still dream of returning.

Suhindar's house has been ransacked by his Muslim neighbours, but he is quick to point out that not all Muslims are the same. "Our good Muslim friends tell us to come back on their own personal guarantees," he says. "But they are talking from their hearts, not the heads. We don't feel safe enough to return."

With the Kashmir Valley made up of 90 per cent Muslims, it could have been predicted that the Hindus would bear the brunt of the militancy. Not because they were a religious minority and an easy target, but because they were the nearest symbols to hand of an overbearing Indian state.

Ever since Kashmir's maharaja signed up to the Indian Union in 1947 the state's predominantly Muslim population has sought either to break away from Hindu India or at least be granted special status. But once autonomy was given, successive Indian administrations have managed to erode it. The more India has pulled on the reins for fear of losing Kashmir to Muslim Pakistan, the more the Kashmiris have tried to break loose. By 1989 home-grown militants in the valley had taken up arms, and were joined by Mujahideen veterans of the Afghan War from as far afield as Sudan and Bosnia.

With the arrival of the Mujahideen the Hindus left. The Hindus say they fled from fear. Many Muslims say they were offered incentives to leave by central government. They see the exodus as a cynical attempt to clear the decks of Hindus so security forces could root out militants. Whether or not this is true, hundreds (some say thousands) of Kashmiris have been arrested, then to disappear.

It is said, only half in jest, that the Indian army sees anyone with a beard as a militant. Coming down hard on recalcitrant communities is a method Indian authorities have used in other disputes within its borders.

In Assam, Punjab, Nagaland, the strategy was to hit the insurgents with all available force, wear them down and then negotiate. Combatants would eventually shake on a deal that offered a stint in state government for rebel leaders.

But in Kashmir the story is different and India's usual strategy has failed. Kashmir is not just an internal dispute, but an international one. Pakistan claims Kashmir. It sees the valley as part of the unfinished business of partition. Its Muslim majority belongs with Pakistan, not Hindu India.

But India does not see it that way. It will not pay tribute to Pakistan's claim by discussing the issue.

But talk the sides must if the threat of nuclear war in South Asia is to recede. Perhaps some good will come of India's escalation of the dispute by its use of air power. It may put both Pakistan and India close enough to the brink to force them to sit down and talk.