Rumbling in Kashmir as prospect of Hindu nationalist win looms in India

Narendra Modi addresses his supporters during a campaign rally at Balasore, India, on Friday.

High in the hills of Kashmir last week came a reminder of the deep and durable tension that the relative calm of recent years in the disputed Himalayan former princedom has hidden.

A gun fight between extremist militants and local security forces in the troubled district of Kupwara, not far from the de facto boundary between the sections of Kashmir run by Pakistan and India, left five dead: a junior officer, two policemen and two extremists.

Officials in Delhi told local media the gunmen were from Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based group responsible for the 2008 attack on the Indian commercial capital, Mumbai. Though there was no confirmation of the claim, the fact that it was made, as is almost invariably the case with such incidents, revealed the tenacity of the two neighbours’ hostility.

The attack came days before voting started in parts of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir in the ongoing Indian general election. Pakistan’s leaders are anxiously watching as the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) surges ahead in polls, increasing the chance of the controversial and polarising Narendra Modi emerging as prime minister. The BJP manifesto pledges a harder line with “cross-border terrorism”, such as officials claimed had occurred last week in Kupwara, than under under the Congress government in power since 2004.

Modi is seen as an efficient and decisive administrator who could boost his nation’s – and thus the region’s – faltering economy. But he is also accused of standing by while hundreds of Muslims were killed by mobs in Gujarat in 2002 shortly after he became chief minister of the western Indian state and aides have been accused of hate speech.

“There are essentially two Modis we are seeing on the campaign trail right now,” said Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US.

Many in Pakistan hope Modi might follow the example of Atal Behari Vajpayee, the last BJP prime minister to govern India, whose tenure overlapped with Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s last period in power in the late 1990s.

At that time relations between the two countries warmed considerably, with both sides agreeing to discuss all the issues between them without getting stuck on the intractable question of Kashmir.

Pakistani supporters of better ties with India have long looked to Vajpayee’s time in power as a model of how a right-wing, staunchly nationalist party could make the sort of concessions that the left-wing Congress party has been unable to do.

“The Congress government was always looking over its shoulder for fear of being attacked by the right,” said Miftah Ismail, a special adviser to Sharif and chairman of Pakistan’s Board of Investment.

“The BJP won’t have that problem and I think after a few months of huffing and puffing they will be in a better position to trade with us.”

Many in the Pakistani business community, eyeing the huge market next door, are particularly keen for an improvement in relations, which they say could deliver a much needed economic windfall to Pakistan.

Sharif, in common with other mainstream Pakistani politicians, says it is vital for India and Pakistan to overcome decades of suspicion, open up their shared border and dramatically increase the feeble level of commercial exchange between the two sides.

Current trade volume is less than $3 billion and some experts estimate that a broad-ranging agreement could eventually send the figure beyond $40 billion, or even more if informal trade was included.

But the implementation of an agreement to sweep aside a raft of restrictions on cross-border trade has been repeatedly postponed.

Also delayed was a visit by the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to the village, now in Pakistan, where he was born 15 years before the country broke off from India in 1947. Such a trip could have “brought a breakthrough”, Delhi-based officials said.

“He wanted very much to go but the context just was never right,” one prime ministerial aide said.

A meeting last year between Singh and Sharif in New York was frosty.

Aziz Ahmed Khan, a retired Pakistani diplomat, said he feared both countries had missed the opportunities of the last decade.

“Even if Rahul Gandi [the 43-year-old who leads the Congress party campaign] won he would be a tough customer as far as Pakistan is concerned,” said Khan, a former high commissioner in Delhi. ” ‘Shining India’ has turned into ‘Strident India’ which thinks it has moved into a different class and should be recognised as the big regional power.”

No Indian government is likely to give the sort of concessions Sharif dreams of until Pakistan gets tough on anti-Indian terrorist groups, Khan added.

Sharif’s government is currently attempting to negotiate a peace deal with the Pakistani Taliban, a deadly coalition of militant groups, and many in the powerful security establishment believe that India is supporting a violent rebellion in the gas-rich south-western state of Balochistan.

Their Indian counterparts believe Pakistan is backing and directing extremist groups which have attacked their interests in Afghanistan.

The suspicion is fuelled by the failure of Pakistan’s courts, notoriously unwilling to convict terrorists, to prosecute anyone accused of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

“Unless there is movement forward on the Mumbai trials there is going to be very little sustainable response or any follow through from India,” said Rehman, the former ambassador.

Rajnath Singh, the president of the BJP, said in an interview with the Guardian last month that his party had wanted to see much more from Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks.

“The BJP has never had a confrontationist attitude about Pakistan. It is our neighbour … We would like to have a very cordial relationship with them. After Mumbai we were hoping that Pakistan would help india to punish the culprits, but they didn’t help,” Singh said.

Little has been done by Pakistani authorities to curb the public posturing of Hafiz Saeed, one of the founders of Lashkar-e-Taiba, who now runs an affiliated group called Jamaat ud Dawa.

Saeed and other militant leaders associated with the “jihad” in Kashmir have been particularly active in the last year, holding massive rallies on the border to denounce India and demand Islamabad make no trade concessions until Kashmir is settled.

Indian officials claim increased incidents of militants attempting to cross the Line of Control from Pakistan-controlled territory into Indian-run parts of Kashmir.

Another major terrorist attack would also probably wreck any chance of a durable agreement and could end the ceasefire that has held in Kashmir for more than a decade. Armies of the two states, which have fought three wars since 1947, still regularly clash across the Line of Control.

Rehman, the former ambassador, said she feared the BJP would not be able to restrain themselves in the way India’s current prime minister did in the wake of the Mumbai attacks.

“My worry about the BJP is not so much what they will do in terms of day to day policy, but their appetite for crisis management,” she said.

Source: The Guardian