Why can't we be friends?

WHEN summer began in picturesque Kashmir this year, most residents of the once troubled Indian state expected a pleasant season. Since 2005, violence has dropped dramatically: insurgency-related deaths fell from 10 a day to hardly two a day this year. Merchants and businessmen were quick to take advantage of the calm. Hotels expecting a banner crop of tourists, spruced themselves up; shops stocked up on goods; and farmers expected a good apple crop.

By Sudip Mazumdar

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Published: Tue 26 Aug 2008, 9:45 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:11 AM

Then it all fell apart. An innocuous government decree, issued on May 26, granting a modest swathe of protected forestland to a Hindu trust, threw a spark that set off mass protests of a sort not seen here since the early 1990s. After the land deal became public in early June, murmurs of protest began to rise. Since June 16, large groups of Hindus and Muslims have taken to the streets in successive days. An estimated 40 people have been killed and thousands arrested. Suddenly it seems, all the recent progress is at risk of being lost. "This is a mass movement," says Ashok Jaitley, a former top Kashmir administrator, of the protests. "We cannot wish it away."

The recent troubles started when Kashmir's Congress-led coalition government granted 99 acres of land to a Hindu trust, allowing it to build temporary shelters for the rush of pilgrims. (This year a record 500,000 made the trek.) Separatist groups pounced on the move, calling for protests against the land deal. Soon militant leaders, who had been lying low, were out on the streets of the state capital, Srinagar, organising marches. As protests mounted, Manmohan Singh's Congress-led coalition in New Delhi dithered, apparently reluctant to antagonise the Hindus by reversing the deal.

Worse still, panicky security forces opened fire on protesters, killing a separatist leader (among others) and adding fuel to the growing Kashmiri rage. After nearly three weeks of vacillating, the government revoked the land grant. This time Hindu groups took umbrage and began protests, blocking a highway that acts as the sole lifeline to Kashmir valley, and demanding that the land order be reinstated. The protests and counter-protests are continuing to hold the whole state ransom, as the Delhi government looks increasingly helpless.

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