Kashmir: Fundamentalism Takes Root

Courtesy Reuters


In Srinagar's Lal Chowk, the most volatile bazaar in the most volatile city in India's most volatile state, life is as normal as life here ever gets. Merchants and marketers haggle over the price of bruised apples, auto-rickshaws jockey with oxcarts for passage through the bustling alleyways, and soldiers gaze lazily through the gun-slits of their sandbagged bunker. There's a rumor that the separatist leader Shabbir Shah will hold a rally at noon, but nobody seems particularly interested. It's almost time for lunch.

Much closer to schedule than might be expected, Shah marches in with a few dozen placard-waving, slogan-shouting supporters. Almost instantly the procession turns into a melee: riot police with helmets and shields stream out of an armored van, beat the protesters back with heavy bamboo canes, and flood the square with billowy white clouds of tear gas. The rally is over in a matter of moments. The demonstrators are dragged, choking and retching, off to jail; the bystanders are left to gag, sputter, and dash blindly for water to wash the burning, blistering pain from their eyes and throats. Within 15 minutes the shopkeepers have returned to their stools, the police to their posts, and the porters to their handcarts -- all still looking forward to their midday meal.

Almost exactly half a century ago in Lal Chowk, aging locals recall, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru renewed his promise that Kashmiris would decide their own future.


Now, with both India and Pakistan brandishing atomic weapons, it is Kashmiris who may decide the future of the entire subcontinent. This summer's battle in the mountains over Kargil was history's first direct combat between two nuclear powers. Every border skirmish between India and Pakistan now carries the potential -- however remote -- for catastrophic escalation, and in Kashmir, such skirmishes are a daily fact of life. There will be no safety for either state without stability in Kashmir, and there will be no stability in Kashmir without

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