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04 December 2023

Mood gloomy in Kashmir over India-Pakistan talks

India and Pakistan are set to relaunch peace talks but residents of Kashmir, at the heart of decades of hostility between the nuclear-armed neighbours, say they are pessimistic about the outcome.

India has proposed foreign secretary-level dialogue with Pakistan, signalling a major breakthrough in relations frozen since the 2008 attacks in Mumbai in which 166 people died.

New Delhi blamed the assault on Pakistan-based militants.

India and Pakistan have held discussions in the past but without any breakthrough on Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan region which each country holds in part but claims in full.

Kashmir has been the trigger for two of three wars between India and Pakistan.

In Muslim-majority Indian Kashmir, which has been in uproar over allegations about police killings of two teenage boys and where anti-India violence has resurfaced, the mood over the talks is gloomy.

"On the one hand, India is offering talks to Pakistan, and on the other hand it is killing innocent people in Kashmir," said Javed Mir, senior leader of the pro-independence Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front.

A two-decade insurgency by militants who oppose New Delhi's rule in Indian Kashmir has claimed more than 47,000 lives, according to an official count. Human rights groups put the toll at twice as high.

Indian Kashmir had been relatively stable for a number of months, but demonstrations and militant violence that India says is stoked by Pakistan -- a charge denied by Islamabad -- has spiked in recent weeks.

"I don't think anything will emerge from these talks, I'm not hopeful at all," said cab driver Sheikh Shafayat, 40, in Indian Kashmir's summer capital Srinagar.

India proposed the talks, which Pakistan has welcomed, "because violence has staged a comeback in Kashmir," Shafayat said.

On the weekend, thousands of demonstrators shouting "blood for blood" and "we want freedom" protested in Kashmir against the alleged security force killing of a second teenage boy in a week.

Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah vowed strong action over the boy's death and police have said they are investigating.

But his words have failed to calm tensions in the region, which was already agitating over the killing of a 14-year-old boy by a police tear-gas shell the previous weekend.

The demonstrations have evolved in recent days into wider anti-India protests. They are reminiscent of huge street protests in 2008 and an increasing number of youngsters are joining the demonstrations.

Last month, Indian commandos stormed a hotel in Srinagar, killing two militants who were holed up in the building. A civilian and a policeman also died in the siege.

Militant attacks on Indian forces and clashes in the heavily militarised state have continued since.

There have also been increased violations of the ceasefire along the Line of Control, the de facto border dividing the region between India and Pakistan.

"These talks will never move beyond photo sessions. Those who think things will change are living in fool's paradise," says Akber Mantoo, a contractor.

The Indians were talking because of external influences, Mantoo said, referring to US pressure on New Delhi to improve ties with Pakistan so Islamabad can fight the Taliban on its border with Afghanistan rather than worry about its eastern flank with India.

But housewife Mehbooba Yasin said any talks that might halt bloodshed in the restive region would be welcome.

"It will be wonderful if the talks could end the violence," said the mother-of-three.

Moderate separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said the future of Kashmir must be on the agenda of the talks.

"If the talks revolve around the Kashmir issue, we'll welcome the exercise," Farooq said. "But if Kashmir is ignored and discussions are held over trivial issues, we will be highly disappointed."

Also, warned Farooq, if Indian soldiers continued to "kill people in Kashmir, then violent rebellion will return to the state."