SRINAGAR, India — For more than a decade, it was seen as one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear flash points, its Himalayan valleys flooded with hundreds of thousands of Indian troops battling a separatist Islamist insurgency backed by neighboring Pakistan.
But as relations slowly improve between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan, the insurgency in Kashmir is gradually fading away. That has left many Kashmiris wondering why quite so many Indian troops are still in the region — under a law that grants them vast powers.
With violence on the wane, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir says the mainly Muslim people of his state deserve to see a “peace dividend,” in the form of a limited withdrawal of the rules that grant soldiers the right to shoot to kill, with virtual immunity from prosecution.
The request covers two districts in Kashmir where the Indian army does not even conduct operations. Casualty rates from the militancy are half of what they were last year and less than 5 percent of what they were a decade ago, officials say.
But India’s leaders have rebuffed Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s request, with the army and the Defense Ministry insisting on maintaining broad powers.
It has left the 41-year-old Abdullah wondering whether the Indian government has the political will to achieve a lasting peace in Kashmir, where tens of thousands of people have died since 1989, and ultimately with Pakistan. The dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir lies at the heart of their long enmity and has fueled two of their three wars.
“At some point in time, we have to have the courage to take what appear to be risky decisions, with the belief that this is an important component of a peace process,” Abdullah said.
If New Delhi cannot agree even to this, “how are you going to resolve the overall Kashmir issue, that is going to require much tougher decisions?” he asked.
The controversial law, known as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, gives the army widespread power to search houses, arrest people without warrants and detain suspects indefinitely. As a result of the impunity it grants, the armed forces routinely torture suspects, Human Rights Watch says, calling the law “a tool of state abuse, oppression and discrimination.”
Indian soldiers also have been accused of killing innocent civilians in Kashmir and passing them off as militants, sometimes just to claim the monetary rewards that come with successful operations.
Although the army says every allegation is properly investigated, human rights groups say the law is routinely used to block prosecutions.
Many Kashmiris have concluded that it is the Indian army, not their democratically elected leaders, that really runs Kashmir.
“All the time India says it wants to solve Kashmir politically, but in fact it wants to maintain the situation militarily,” said religious and separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.
The long rivalry over Kashmir has become a cancer, spreading instability throughout the region. Pakistan uses allegations of human rights abuses by Indian troops in Kashmir to help justify its claim over the territory.
In 2004, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set up a commission to review the controversial law and promised to abide by its conclusions. Yet when the panel called for the law to be repealed, the recommendations were ignored.
Neither the army nor the Defense Ministry responded to requests to defend their stance on the law, but they have argued in the past that militants would take advantage of any rollback in the law to expand operations. They say the law is necessary for the army to operate freely and protect itself from frivolous lawsuits.
Three of the past four summers have included repeated, violent protests reminiscent of the Palestinian intifada, with demonstrators throwing stones at police and officers responding with live fire.
Yet political experts here say Kashmiris might still respond positively if New Delhi would only trust them — especially at a time when the idea of joining Pakistan holds less attraction than it used to, such are the problems just across the border.
“If Kashmiris were left on their own, they would prefer to be part of India, but in a situation of dignity and with a certain degree of autonomy and freedom,” said Noor Ahmad Baba, the head of the political science department at Kashmir University. “If you respect people, then possibly they will be with you emotionally, but if you suppress people, they will never be with you.”
Now, Baba says, is the time for the Indian leadership to show “vision, guts and courage.” But such is Singh’s cautious character, such is his lack of control over his own cabinet and coalition partners that no one is holding their breath.
For historian Ramachandra Guha, the failure to withdraw the law is “foolish and shortsighted,” just another example of the “disastrous” way in which the Indian government has abused democracy in Kashmir for six decades, including the periodic rigging of elections.
In Srinagar, summer capital of Indian-held Kashmir, 23-year-old Bilkees Mansoor knows only too well how difficult it is to find justice when the army is effectively above the law. When she was just 13, she saw her father, a chemist and businessman, dragged out of their home just after midnight by dozens of soldiers, never to be seen or heard from again.
Clutching his photograph, Mansoor recounted her family’s decade-long search for him and how her mother and her siblings have stress-related health problems. She told of their desperate efforts to have the arresting officer questioned or appear in court.
She says the case even went to the country’s Supreme Court, where the army major’s appeal to avoid questioning was rejected in July 2007. Still, he has failed to appear in court.
“Because of this law, the army is doing very evil things,” she said. “I still believe my father is alive. We have to keep positive thoughts in our minds. But if he is buried somewhere, this is my right to know.”