Indian panel urges lighter hand in restive Kashmir

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India should rethink the harsh military laws imposed on Kashmir if it wants to defuse tensions in its portion of the disputed, divided Himalayan region, a panel of Indian-appointed mediators advised Thursday.

But the panel rejected the idea that Kashmir should be autonomous, despite decades of separatist unrest and rival claims to the territory by neighboring Pakistan. Instead, their report — which is not legally binding — reaffirmed Kashmir's "dual character" within India.

The mediators said that granting more autonomy, as the territory had before 1953, "would create a dangerous constitutional vacuum in the center-state relationship. The clock cannot be set back."

Separatists rejected the report as redundant. For decades, they have objected to Kashmir's special constitutional status as an Indian effort to placate international critics, and they said Thursday's report represented another attempt to subjugate the region under a false sense of democracy.

"The solution lies outside the ambit of the Indian constitution," separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said. "This report is clearly to mislead the public opinion in India and abroad."

Separatists have long accused India of holding Kashmir under what they call a military occupation by 700,000 Indian troops.

"We have not made our sacrifices for an internal autonomy ... under Indian rule," said Syed Ali Shah Geelani, another separatist leader in the main city of Srinagar. "We are fighting for an end to India's military occupation" with a referendum on self-determination.

The mediators' report agreed the military presence was "intrusive" and said troops need special training to "respect the dignity of citizens."

"The ostentatious presence of the security forces must be reduced to a minimum even while ensuring that they can be rushed to any spot to quell trouble at short notice," the report said.

An earlier separatist insurgency launched in 1989 and the ensuing security crackdowns left 68,000 people dead before the rebellion was largely suppressed by 2006. However, the draconian military laws imposed then have remained, with frequent checkpoints along major roads and security forces allowed to shoot suspects on sight.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has maintained its own claim to the territory, over which India and Pakistan have fought two wars since 1947. Administration of the territory is now divided between the two rivals by a heavily militarized line of control snaking through the Himalayas.

"This has been said by rights groups like ours, the political leadership in Jammu and Kashmir as well as Kashmiris themselves," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch. The emergency laws "have led to violations, the perpetrators are yet to be prosecuted, and thus there is no sense of justice."