NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India will consider scaling back security forces in the disputed Kashmir region, the government said on Saturday, aiming to calm months of protests in which more than 100 people have been killed, most of them in police firing.
Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said the government would also soon announce a team to begin a dialogue with a broad section of Kashmir, including political parties and groups.
The decisions are the latest effort by the government to reach out to Muslim-majority Kashmir, where an air of defiance unseen for years has threatened to undermine India’s rule over a region also claimed by its rival and neighbor, Pakistan.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been accused of not taking seriously enough the largest pro-independence protests in two decades in Kashmir this summer. Saturday’s announcement comes after a delegation of Indian lawmakers visited the region this week, and some of them also met separatist leaders.
“We will request the state government to immediately convene a meeting of the (security) Unified Command and to review the deployment of security forces in Kashmir valley, especially Srinagar,” Chidambaram told reporters after a meeting of the Indian cabinet’s committee on security.
He said the state government will look at the options for scaling down the number of bunkers and check points in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, and other towns. Kashmir has been in a siege-like state since June with shops and offices closed and education institutions shut. Roads have remained empty.
Chidambaram, seeking to assuage popular anger over a widely hated law in Kashmir that gives security forces sweeping powers to shoot, arrest and search people, said the state will look at the option of limiting the areas where the law operates.
Most of Kashmir has, for years, been declared “disturbed,” a precondition for the application of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Kashmiri separatists, who accuse the army of large scale human rights abuses, want the armed forces law withdrawn. More half a million security personnel are deployed in Kashmir.
“We will request the state government to review the notification (of the disturbed areas). They will decide which notifications have to be continued (and) which need not be continued,” Chidambaram said.
“We think these steps should address the concerns of different sections of the people in Jammu and Kashmir, including the protesters.”
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in Kashmir since an armed revolt against New Delhi’s rule erupted in 1989. India says Pakistan fans the rebellion. But militancy has now weakened.
While a previous generation of Kashmiris often embraced the militancy, a new generation has used street protests, Facebook and mobile phones to spread revolt. Most of those killed by police bullet since June are stone-throwing protesters.
Chidambaram said the state government was being asked to release all those arrested for stone throwing. He also announced a compensation of about $11,000 for the kin of each protester killed since the beginning of the demonstrations in June.
Later, Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah told reporters in New Delhi that he would convene a meeting next week to discuss ways to “reduce the footprint of security forces” in the region.
“Hope this will be the first step to the final destination of reaching a political solution to the Kashmir issue,” Omar said, referring to the decisions announced by Chidambaram.
Kashmiri separatist hardliners rejected Chidambaram’s offers as “eyewash” and declared a 10-day protest.
“None of our demands has been met, so we will continue the protests,” Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has emerged as the leading face of the present cycle of street violence, said.
The 80-year-old leader has laid down five conditions to enter into dialogue with New Delhi. The conditions include India accepting Kashmir as an international dispute, revoking the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and demilitarizing the region.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, both of which claim the region in full. They have fought two of their three wars over it. Kashmiri separatists in India want to carve out an independent homeland or merge with predominantly Muslim Pakistan.
Additional reporting by Sheikh Mushtaq in SRINAGAR; editing by Philippa Fletcher