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In the midst of Kashmir crisis, some islands of peace

Praveen Swami

Politicians in several rural constituencies have stood against the rising tide of violence


Large swathes of countryside are peaceful

Clashes reported through the year with

urban focus


BARAMULLA: Burning tyres were strewn across the road at Palhalan, a small town perched along the highway running north from Srinagar through Baramulla and on to the Line of Control. Fifty-odd protesters, most of whom looked like they ought to be in elementary school, manned the barricade, threatening to throw rocks at any vehicle which dared to pass that way.

Five minutes up the road, near Trumb Gund village, eight-year-old Mohammad Shafi Pir stood by the roadside with a small crate of apples he hoped to sell to passengers aboard the hundreds of trucks, buses and cars that were backed up along the highway. Pir's school had been closed for weeks but the child did not seem displeased at having spent the summer plucking the apples ripening in his family orchard.

Even as violent protests have engulfed urban Kashmir, large swathes of its countryside have remained peaceful. Noorabad, home to one of the most intense concentrations of Lashkar-e-Taiba jihadists in Jammu and Kashmir till a few years ago, hasn't seen a single major clash. Neither has Langate — a constituency perched between Baramulla and Sopore, where protesters set fire to a temple and attacked homes during the communally-charged violence of 2008.

Little violence has been seen in Finance Minister and National Conference heavyweight Abdul Rahim Rather's central Kashmir constituency, Chrar-e-Sharif. Dooru, represented by the former Housing Minister, Ghulam Hassan Mir, saw just one significant clash. Kangan, represented by four-time legislator Mian Altaf Ahmad, hasn't seen a major confrontation either.

Police records illustrate the dramatic difference between town and country in Kashmir. In July, 355 of 500 clashes between police and protesters were concentrated in the districts of Srinagar, Baramulla and Anantnag — home to Kashmir's four largest cities. June saw 369 clashes; 318 took place in the three districts. The clashes ebbed and flowed through the year, with the same urban focus. One hundred and fifty six of the 176 clashes recorded in February took place in Srinagar, Baramulla and Anantnag.

Kashmir's more peaceful rural constituencies share few common features but one stands out: they are all home to politicians elected with substantive majorities from regions which saw voter turnout in the 2008 Assembly elections.

Sakina Itoo, the feisty 38-year-old Minister for Social Welfare, understands just how dangerous spending time on Kashmir's streets can be. Ever since she first stood for election in 1996, Ms. Itoo has faced more than 20 terrorist attacks — five of them bombings which claimed the lives of political associates, guards and bystanders. Her father, former Speaker Wali Mohammad Itoo, was assassinated in March 1994.

“From the beginning,” she says, “I told my constituents I cannot solve the Kashmir problem. What I can do is bring about some improvement in their lives. I have focussed on building roads and bridges; on rural welfare schemes and child care centres. I am always available when people have problems with the police or the Army. The Kashmir problem must be solved. But we also need to solve the problems of ordinary Kashmiris until it is.”

“This is politics”

The investments made in community assets in Noorabad seem to have paid off. Early in August, pamphlets were pasted on walls at Manzgam village, accusing local residents of being police informers because they had defied Tehreek-i-Hurriyat calls to close down their shops and offices. The posters, Ms. Itoo claims, were in fact put up by local People's Democratic Party workers attempting to embarrass the community into action. “Look,” she says, “this is politics. In 2008, after all, our workers joined in the protests to embarrass the PDP.”

‘Engineer' Sheikh Rashid, an independent who broke with secessionist leader Sajjad Lone to contest the 2008 elections, has adopted different tactics. Instead of focussing on development issues, Rashid has sought to undercut secessionists in his constituency by focussing on the concerns they address. In recent weeks, he has led several protests against the police, focussing on human rights violations and the use of disproportionate force.

“I just do not understand,” says Rashid, “what the National Conference is doing in Srinagar. They have eight MLAs from the city. Doesn't each of them have even a hundred supporters who can reach out to people affected by violence, visit hospitals and hold talks with community notables to find a solution?”

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