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South Asia: Analysts Say Indian Troop Withdrawal From Kashmir A 'Significant' Step Forward

New Delhi began pulling a small percentage of its troops out of Indian-administered Kashmir yesterday. An Indian military officer said the withdrawal will eventually involve at least 20,000 soldiers. Up to 500,000 Indian troops are estimated to be in the Muslim-majority state, where they are trying to quell a 15-year-old separatist rebellion. RFE/RL reports on the impact the troop withdrawals may have on the troubled region and on relations between India and Pakistan.

Prague, 18 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Political analysts and human rights experts on the Asian subcontinent are welcoming New Delhi's decision to start withdrawing troops from parts of Indian-administered Kashmir.

The withdrawals are described by Indian military officials as a "phased process." They began yesterday with about 1,000 Indian soldiers moving out of southern Kashmir, just hours ahead of the first official visit there by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Samina Ahmed, the project director for the International Crisis Group in Pakistan, told RFE/RL today that the development is significant.

"There have been no official Indian figures, but the numbers that are given are anywhere between 20,000 to 40,000 [Indian troops] that will be withdrawn out of the approximately 500,000 that are in Kashmir," Ahmed said. "It is significant. It doesn't really matter about the numbers. It is significant that the process has started. In the perceptions of most Kashmiris, it was the military presence which was a problem. It wasn't a solution to the conflict within. And [these withdrawals represent] New Delhi reaching out to Srinagar [the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir] in a very meaningful way."

Additional troop pullouts could be announced if New Delhi determines such moves are merited. However, Ahmed noted that there also is nothing to stop New Delhi from sending forces back to Kashmir if security worsens.

"The Indian government has said that the process of withdrawal will continue. But that does not mean there cannot be redeployment of troops if the situation within Kashmir deteriorates," Ahmed said. "So as long as the conflict within is limited to sporadic attacks that are small, limited in number and that aren't high profile, India will go ahead with troop withdrawals. But if the insurgency escalates once again, they will redeploy. They have kept that option open."

Meenakshi Ganguly, a Bombay-based researcher for Human Rights Watch who is currently preparing a report about Kashmir, said: "For the people of Kashmir where the troops have been withdrawn from, it will make a big difference, because a constant armed presence in any area leads to the kind of abuses that Human Rights Watch has often pointed out to governments."
India's prime minister has ruled out any change to the territorial and administrative status of the region.

Ganguly said that ordinary Kashmiris are caught in an armed conflict in which human rights abuses are committed daily. She said that her research shows that both Indian military forces and separatist fighters are responsible for the abuses.

"Addressing the human rights concerns of Kashmiri leaders is something that the Indian government tends to treat differently from its relations with Pakistan," Ganguly said. "So there are two different aspects to it. And the Indian prime minister has committed to an easing of the situation -- which we [at Human Rights Watch] would definitely welcome because the presence of troops has damaged the human rights situation to a large extent and made life very difficult for local people in Kashmir."

Ahmed, of the International Crisis Group, concluded that India's troop withdrawals will have more impact on relations between the Indian government and political leaders in Kashmir than it will on ties between Pakistan and India.

"In terms of the dynamics of Jammu and Kashmir, [the withdrawals are] going to be important. In terms of the relations between India and Pakistan, we are talking about something else," Ahmed said. "Pakistan has officially welcomed India's decision [to start withdrawing troops]. But at the same time, there are people here [in Islamabad] -- opinion makers, in particular -- who are saying the numbers are too small [and that people should] look at where they are being withdrawn. So there are all these questions that are being raised. It does matter. Pakistan can't afford to ignore this development. But really, the impact of this development is going to be on the situation within Kashmir -- on the relations between New Delhi and Srinagar -- much more than it is going to impact on India-Pakistan relations."

Ahmed said the real test of progress in relations between Islamabad and New Delhi will be formal talks on Kashmir starting next month between the prime ministers and the foreign ministers of the two countries.

She said the peace process between India and Pakistan is still in its early stages and can be easily disrupted. One possible stumbling block, she said, is the issue of the final status of Kashmir.

In the past, both India and Pakistan have claimed all of Kashmir as their territory.

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf recently proposed talks on a possible change to the legal status of the divided region. He has suggested some parts of Kashmir could be made independent, placed under joint Indian and Pakistani control, or be put under United Nations administration.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yesterday, however, categorically ruled out any change to the territorial and administrative status of the divided region. That indicates New Delhi wants a solution to the Kashmir dispute based on the existing Line of Control, which divides Kashmir between Pakistan and India.