Kashmiri leaders reject Indian PM's autonomy offer

August 12, 2010

SRINAGAR, India (AFP) – Separatist leaders in Indian Kashmir Wednesday dismissed overtures from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for greater political autonomy in the region following months of anti-India unrest.

Appealing to Kashmiri Muslims to “give peace a chance,” Singh had said Tuesday that his government would consider any consensus proposal for autonomy as long as it remained “within the ambit” of the constitution.
He also announced the creation of a panel of experts that would draw up a “jobs plan” for Indian Kashmir where rampant unemployment -- especially among young people -- is fuelling the already deep resentment against Indian rule.
But senior Kashmir separatists rejected Singh's initiative.
“Our fight is for independence, not autonomy,” Javed Mir, a former militant commander turned separatist politician, told AFP.
“We will continue our fight for our goal through peaceful protests,” said Mir, who had been among the first Kashmiris to take up arms in 1989 when frustration against Indian rule boiled over into a full-blown insurgency.
Under the terms of its accession to India in 1947 -- after independence from Britain and the sub-continent's division -- Kashmir was granted a relatively high degree of autonomy, excluding areas like defense and foreign affairs.
But those powers have been eroded over the years, and renewed promises of greater autonomy gain little traction in separatist circles.
“Our struggle is not for the restoration of autonomy. It is to seek our right to self-determination,” Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, an influential moderate separatist and Muslim cleric, told AFP.
“We should be allowed to decide whether we want to remain with India, accede to Pakistan or carve out an independent state,” he said.
Kashmir is divided between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan, which both claim the region in full and have fought two wars over their territorial dispute.
The Kashmir legislative assembly in 2000 passed a resolution favoring full restoration of the state's autonomy, but it was rejected by the then Hindu-nationalist government in New Delhi.
Autonomy is the main demand of the ruling National Conference, the state's biggest pro-India political party.
Hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani said Kashmiri opposition to Indian rule ran far deeper than the issue of unemployment.
“The prime minister has failed to accept the ground realities that Kashmiris want freedom from India. Kashmiris are not sacrificing their lives for jobs,” Geelani said.
Violence erupted in the Kashmir Valley following the death on June 11 of a 17-year-old boy struck by a police tear-gas shell.
Since then thousands of mostly young Kashmiris have taken to the streets of the main city Srinagar and other towns on an almost daily basis, defying curfew orders and pelting police with stones and rocks.
Around 50 have died, most as the result of police shooting, with 33 people killed in the last two weeks.
Reaction among the protesters to Singh's address was mixed.
Burhan Wani, a post-graduate student in business management, said Singh was trying to paint the problem as an economic rather than a political one.
But Waheeda Akber was encouraged by the fact that Singh had appeared to recognize the sincerity of Kashmiris' frustration and not gone down the normal route of blaming neighboring Pakistan for fomenting the unrest.
“For the first time, Pakistan, separatists and militants were not blamed for instigating our home-grown, spontaneous protests,” Akber said.
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