Two weeks ago, I was in a dingy government office in northern Afghanistan, interviewing a police official. A small TV set flickered in the corner, but I barely noticed it until I suddenly glimpsed a familiar, grizzled face frozen on the screen. Underneath was a one-word caption: Assassinated.
It was Abdul Ghani Lone, a 70-year-old lawyer and politician from India's Kashmir Valley. He had been gunned down in Srinagar, the region's major city, just after delivering a speech at a memorial service for another slain political leader.
Sick with sadness and rage, I sank down in front of the TV and touched the face on the screen. Lone had been my friend, a man I admired greatly for his candor and courage. I had no idea who had killed him, but I immediately knew why: The stakes in Kashmir had simply become too high to tolerate an honest, moderate voice.
Tens of thousands of people have died violently in the Kashmir Valley, a corner of India whose natural beauty has been savaged by a vicious guerrilla war for the past 13 years, a place where fading posters of scenic lakes and mountain crags were long ago eclipsed by news photos of kerchiefed women wailing over corpses.
During numerous visits to Kashmir over the past four years, I have written about dozens of these deaths, always struggling to achieve that fraudulent balance between outrage and impartiality. Sometimes I saw the mutilated bodies of young Kashmiri guerrilla suspects dumped by roadsides, sometimes the charred bodies of young Indian soldiers torn to shreds by grenade blasts.
Always, the killings were fresh fodder for the propaganda war being waged by India, Pakistan and the Kashmiri separatist movement, whose competing claims to the divided border region are rooted in the chaotic, never-clarified partition of Hindu-dominated India that created Muslim Pakistan more than half a century ago.
Always, facts were hard to come by and blame was easily diffused in the murky fog of a protracted proxy war in which all sides were guilty of intransigence, cruelty and cynicism -- and virtually no one ever told the truth.
But when I learned that Lone had been assassinated on May 21, I felt as if an unforgivable line had been crossed -- as if the forces of extremism were sending the ultimate, nihilistic message from the murk. I felt a sense of despair far deeper and sharper than anything I had experienced while covering scores of more anonymous deaths in Kashmir.
For years, Lone had been one of the few voices of consistent reason in a conflict dominated by radical posturing, narrow self-interest and gratuitous violence. A one-time state legislator and lifelong Muslim separatist who was a senior leader of the All Parties Hurriyet Conference, he harbored equal mistrust of India's and Pakistan's designs on Kashmir.
He defended the Kashmiri armed insurgency, but only as a necessary, limited evil in the absence of dialogue and democracy. And when Islamic fundamentalist fighters from Pakistan began gaining influence over the guerrilla movement several years ago, he was the only prominent separatist who spoke out against them.
Since 1998, Lone and I had met periodically in his barren Srinagar office for long conversations, closer to history lectures, laced with his mournful aphorisms and wry wit. I ate with his family, I traveled with him, I was invited to his son's wedding. I called him "Lone Sahib," a term of respect. He called me "daughter," which made me feel embarrassed but never compromised.
Our conversations helped me understand the tortured history of Kashmir, the fatalistic pride and bitterness of the valley's Muslim majority, the alienation and frustration that drove thousands of young Kashmiri men to take up arms in the early 1990s against the far more powerful military forces of the Indian state.
"Kashmir is like a well with a poisoned dog inside it," Lone told me in 1999. "India keeps removing buckets and buckets of water, but it has never removed the dog. As long as the Kashmir issue is not resolved, the poison will remain."
But Lone never allowed himself to be poisoned. Despite his abiding suspicion of India's central government, which he viewed as an occupying colonial power, he never gave up hoping for negotiation and democratic rule in Kashmir. Although convinced he had been cheated out of his state assembly seat by Indian officials in 1987, he recently expressed support for upcoming state elections.
Despite his movement's longtime dependence on Pakistan, and the separatist myth that most Kashmiri Muslims yearned to be part of the neighboring state, Lone was increasingly critical of Pakistan's self-interested patronage. Two years ago, during a rare trip to Islamabad for his son's wedding, he pointedly said it was time for Kashmir's Islamic "guest fighters" to go home.
"Our biggest danger now is sabotage from extremists on both sides," he told me then. "Both the Pakistani [intelligence services] and the Indian army want to continue this war. There are many vested interests, and we must not fall into their trap. Kashmir should be left to manage its own problems."
But the guerrilla attacks intensified, hostility between India and Pakistan mounted, and now the neighboring rivals -- both possessing nuclear arsenals -- proclaim themselves ready for war. Hundreds of thousands of troops stare each other down across the border, and Pakistani officials have made veiled threats to use nuclear weapons if India attacks.
Against this backdrop of near-total polarization, the slaying of Lone made tragic sense. Just as Kashmir seemed about to boil over into the decisive regional conflict of Islamic extremists' dreams, the senior separatist leader was disavowing their radical agenda and backing Indian elections. He had to be silenced.
Lone's assassination, by masked gunmen who posed as police and then escaped, made me think instantly of Neelam Tiruchelvam, a moderate Sri Lankan politician from the Tamil ethnic minority, who had been respected for his efforts to find neutral ground and a negotiated solution to the protracted civil war with the Sinhalese majority.
In July 1999, Tiruchelvam, 55, was killed by a suicide bomber, probably from the Tamil Tiger guerrillas. Like Lone's, his reasonable demands for negotiation and limited political autonomy for an ethnic-minority region posed a far greater threat than any armed foe to extremists' visions of cataclysmic confrontation.
To those genuinely concerned about solving the Kashmir conflict, Lone's audacious slaying seemed to deal a blow to the prospects for peace. Indian newspaper editorials mourned the "death of moderation," the "redundancy of reason" and the demise of a dove in a "season of hawks."
To those more concerned with spin, the unsolved crime was another opportunity for easy finger-pointing. Many Indians blamed Pakistan, suggesting that its intelligence agencies had decided to eliminate a persuasive, anti-Pakistan voice. Some Pakistani guerrilla groups blamed India, suggesting that its agents had used Lone to tar them as terrorists.
Given the treacherous history of the Kashmir conflict, neither scenario was out of the question. But to me, it hardly mattered who had pulled the trigger. Lone Sahib was gone. There would be no more edifying chats in his office, no more Kashmiri proverbs and no more embarrassing moments when a grizzled old politician, with sly but irresistible charm, greeted me fondly as "daughter."
I will always miss him.