NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India said on Saturday it would consider scaling back security in the disputed Kashmir region, aiming to calm months of protests against Indian rule in which over 100 people have been killed, most of them by police.
Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said the government would soon announce a team to begin a dialogue with a broad cross-section of Kashmiris, including political parties, and that all protesters held for throwing stones would be freed.
The eight-point conciliatory package also included compensation for the families of dead protesters and a promise to review the scope for limiting a much-hated law that gives the military sweeping powers to search, arrest or shoot.
“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.
India’s only Muslim-majority state, which is also claimed by Pakistan, has been in a siege-like state of strikes, protests and curfew for months. Most shops, offices and schools are shut, and roads deserted.
Critics have until now accused Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of failing to take the largest pro-independence protests in two decades seriously, and the plan marked a dramatic shift in the government’s position.
“This could be an opening gambit for building confidence because measures like releasing people and reducing security foot prints will resonate with the common people,” said Siddharth Varadarajan, strategic affairs editor of the newspaper The Hindu.
But 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,” said Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has emerged as the leading face of the present cycle of street violence.
More than half a million security personnel are deployed in Kashmir, most of which has for years been declared “disturbed” — a precondition for application of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
Kashmiri separatists accuse the army of large-scale human rights abuses, and want the law withdrawn.
Chidambaram said the state would look at the option of limiting the areas of Kashmir where the act operates.
He also said the state government would consider scaling down the number of bunkers and checkpoints in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, and other towns.
“We think these steps should address the concerns of different sections of the people in Jammu and Kashmir, including the protesters,” Chidambaram said.
Analysts said the move suggested that the federal government might be willing to shift more responsibility for handling the revolt to the state government in Kashmir and its chief minister, Omar Abdullah.
“It will be up to the state government to take a call on removing the disturbed areas act from some places and getting the army and paramilitary to play ball,” said Uday Bhaskar, director of the National Maritime Foundation think tank in New Delhi.
In particular, the act could be revoked in some places such as Srinagar, which are not controlled by the army.
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.
“(I) hope this (the conciliation plan) will be the first step to the final destination of reaching a political solution to the Kashmir issue,” Omar said.
Geelani, the 80-year-old separatist leader, has laid down five conditions for a dialogue with New Delhi. They include India accepting Kashmir as an international dispute, revoking the Special Powers Act and demilitarising the region.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in Kashmir since an armed revolt against New Delhi’s rule first erupted in 1989. India says Pakistan fans the rebellion.
While a previous generation of Kashmiris often embraced militant groups, a new generation has used street protests, Facebook and mobile phones to spread revolt. Most of those killed by police bullets since June have been protesters throwing stones.
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 Kevin Liffey