India ordered the release of Kashmiri protesters jailed during violence that has killed more than 100 people, and will appoint mediators to defuse one of the most serious challenges to Indian rule in two decades.
The federal government has asked authorities in the state of Jammu and Kashmir to immediately reopen all schools and colleges and review steps to scale back security forces in the summer capital, Srinagar, and other towns, according to a Ministry of Home Affairs statement in New Delhi. The freeing of those detained as police clashed with demonstrators wanting an end to rule from New Delhi meets a key separatist demand.
“These are positive, concrete measures aimed at defusing unrest and hopefully meet the wishes of the people of Jammu and Kashmir comprehensively,” said Dipankar Banerjee, director of the Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies, a New Delhi-based research organization. “These measures are required for a complex situation like Kashmir.”
The federal government’s steps to restore peace in the Kashmir valley come after an all-party delegation met separatist and local government leaders in Kashmir this week to end four months of street battles between protesters and police in the region claimed by both India and Pakistan. Nearly all of those killed were felled by police firing.
The violence is the biggest crisis India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has faced in the region and comes less than two years after a turnout of 61 percent at local elections in the state promised a more peaceful future.
Jammu and Kashmir, where a guerrilla insurgency against Indian rule has left 50,000 people dead since 1989, will also get an additional 1 billion rupees ($22 million) from the central government to help fund schools, libraries and other educational facilities.
The home ministry, in its statement, said the mediators will be headed by an “eminent person.” It also ordered the establishment of two task forces, one for the region of Jammu and another for Ladakh, to study “deficiencies” in infrastructure.
Singh said on Sept. 15 that Kashmiris had “grievances” that had to be met. He announced the formation of a panel to study how more jobs can be created in the region.
The latest outburst of violence began after a teenager was killed by a police tear gas shell in June. Pro-independence demonstrators across the disputed territory have defied curfews, pelted government forces with stones, and set office buildings and vehicles ablaze.
Kashmir’s designation as a “disturbed area” means members of the security forces are granted wide ranging powers to use weapons and carry out arrests while being shielded from prosecution by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.
The state government will review whether to remove that status, Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told reporters in New Delhi. Human Rights Watch in 2008 urged India to repeal the special laws, saying they had violated fundamental freedoms for 50 years.
The main federal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has said any dilution of the powers handed to the army and paramilitary police in Kashmir, or the withdrawal of forces, will allow separatists to step up their fight.
The BJP will support steps that are “anti-separatist,” it said in a statement today. It has always “stood for strong signals that India shall not compromise on its sovereignty under any circumstances,” it said.
Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan in 1947 and the cause of two of their wars, remains the biggest hurdle to improved cross-border relations.
Singh said Sept. 15 that while some of the latest protests “may have been impulsive or spontaneous, it cannot be denied that some incidents were orchestrated by certain groups.”