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Letter from India: Peace Breaking Out in Kashmir

New America Media, News analysis, Mark Schurmann Posted: Feb 13, 2009

Editor's Note: Indian voters in Kashmir turned out in record numbers, offering hopeful signs of bottom-up change and the glimmers of needed stability in the region as U.S. envoy Richard Holbrook visits the region. NAM correspondent Mark Schurmann reports.

DEHRADUN, India--Americans voted for change facing a serious economic downturn, Indian Kashmiris did it looking down the barrel of a gun.

Now, as special envoy Richard Holbrook makes his first visit to troubled capitals Islamabad and Kabul, the same Kashmiris offer a remarkable example of how change from the bottom up can provide a foundation for much needed political stability.

A special forces officer stationed in Kashmir, who preferred to remain anonymous, claimed he's never seen the region as peaceful as it is now. A recent issue of The India Express featured an op-ed confirming his view. It called for a draw down of Indian troops in the area citing figures that show violence at its lowest in almost 20 years.

The officer claimed there was a 85 percent turn out during the elections in Srinagar, capital of Kashmir, a few months back, "the highest in India yet [during this election season]"

The unexpected turn out was mirrored in just about every area of the long troubled region. News outlets reported an average of 65 percent participation statewide. Kashmiris shivered in long lines in early morning under the threats of violence from militant separatists, who called for a boycott of elections.

Even militant separatists seemed to have conceded the fairness of the elections and the voter mandate for stability in the region.

The newly elected chief minister, Omar Abdullah (scion of a local political family), is young and popular and apparently taking some cues from Obama, promising transparency and partisanship as governor. With the unemployment rate one of the highest in the country, he is moving fast to entice large scale investment from India's private sector, having already secured millions from Indian outsourcing giant ESSAR.

These developments are important to note, given American and British pressure on India to deal with the "Kashmir problem" in the interests of greater regional stability, especially in regards to securing Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. Both the United States and the United Kingdom strongly urged India to refrain from escalating tensions with Pakistan in the aftermath of the November Mumbai terror attacks, though India strongly suspects Pakistani involvement.

Because of the suspected involvement of Pakistani-based group Lashkar-e-Toiba, a militant Kashmiri separatist group, Kashmir, a contested region, has grown from being a strictly Indian/Pakistani affair to joining Afghanistan and Iraq as a potential flashpoint in the greater "war on terror."

On his first official visit to India, British Foreign Minister David Miliband called on New Delhi to deal with the problem, implying that Kashmir was the primary motive for the November Mumbai attacks and a potential cause of future international terrorism and irritating India's Parliament to no end.

And Indians are closely watching Richard Holbrook's visit to Islamabad -- Obama's first effort in stabilizing Afghanistan by ensuring (some might say paying for) Pakistan's cooperation in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida along its northwestern border with Afghanistan. Though there reportedly wasn't any mention of Kashmir during Holbrook's visit to Islamabad, it's assumed that India's complete cooperation is expected with regards to both Kashmir and Pakistan. NATO allies do not want another war front in the region.

Regardless of American or NATO's interests, however, it seems as if ordinary Kashmiris have already taken care of that through their votes.

Perhaps Barak Obama and Gordon Brown should be taking advice from Indians rather than giving it out.

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