India says winning hearts and minds in Kashmir despite setbacks
SRINAGAR, Saturday (AFP) - An Indian army effort to reinvent itself as a force of do-gooders in revolt-hit Kashmir is paying dividends despite a string of ugly and embarrassing setbacks, the military says.
In recent months, members of the estimated half-a-million strong security contingent have been charged for murdering innocent civilians and passing them off as Islamic militants as a twisted way of earning bonuses and promotions.
|Members of Jammu Kashmir Salvation Movement (JKSM) shout slogans during a protest in Srinagar on Friday, demanding the release of activists detained by Indian police. Reuters
A plan to win hearts and minds by spending 5.5 million rupees (135,000 dollars) on sprucing up Sufi shrines and mosques also ended with Muslim clerics warning New Delhi to keep its mainly-Hindu hands off Islamic sites.
The army has apologised, but nevertheless insists it is making headway in a region where separatist or pro-Pakistan sentiment still holds sway and where the army has long been viewed as trigger-happy occupiers rather than caring community workers.
“We are definitely winning hearts and minds in Kashmir,” the spokesman for the Indian army in Kashmir, Anil Kumar Mathur, said of the goodwill surge. “More and more people are coming up with information against militants.
Thousands of youth queue up to join army in Kashmir. Militancy has dropped sharply,” he told AFP.
According to the spokesman, the scandal over extra-judicial murders has resulted in “very, very strict” action against the perpetrators, and “orders to cause minimum inconvenience to the people during counter-insurgency operations.””Special classes are given to the soldiers and even their officers on how to prevent human rights violations... It is a war against few misguided people, so don't torture or terrorise everyone,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers have been in Kashmir battling a separatist revolt since 1989. The war has claimed at least 42,000 lives, more than a third of them civilians, according to official figures.
Rights groups say thousands more have disappeared.
Pakistan and India, which each hold the scenic Himalayan region in part but claim it in full, have been engaged in a slow-moving peace process since 2004 -- and the average daily body count has dropped as a result.
Once routine tit-for-tat shelling along the Line of Control has also halted, a relief for villagers close to the front. A trans-Kashmir bus service, launched in April 2005, has also been opened to connect divided families living in the two parts of Kashmir.
But on the ground, it is still impossible to escape the overwhelming army presence.
Cordon and search operations continue, scores of youth are detained and interrogated each day, and local dailies carry headlines like “Troops thrash trader,” “Another custodial death” and “Protests against troop abuses.””It is a fact that no one wants them here. They should go,” said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the region's leading cleric and a moderate separatist.
“They want to win sympathy and they will never get that.”Srinagar shopkeeper Mohammed Yusuf agreed, saying “heart and minds” public works projects were failing to build bridges with a war-weary public. “Renovating our shrines will not serve any purpose. They will have to change their attitude at the ground level,” he said.“These are the very troops who raid our houses with their shoes on and speak abusive language,” Yusuf complained.
The Indian army spokesman, however, said 'Operation Sadbavana' (goodwill) will continue -- of course “minus the renovating of shrines and mosques.””The army has been building schools, providing computers, constructing roads, bus stands and toilets. They have even been providing health care to hundreds in remote villages,” he said.
“People have also realised that they can prosper by leaps and bounds by continuing to be part of a great country like India.”