Early this week, President Asif Ali Zardari promised legislators in Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir that he would honour his father-in-law’s promise to wage “a thousand year war” to seize territory claimed by the country from India. On Wednesday, as two jihadists holed up inside a Srinagar hotel battled police personnel, India’s media were quick to cast the fighting in similarly apocalyptic terms. Barring that it took place around the corner from the offices of Srinagar-based television stations, there was little to distinguish the incident from dozens of similar fire engagements that regularly take place in the State. In fact the news from Jammu and Kashmir for the most part is heartening. Comprehensive official data are yet to be released, but the authoritative South Asia Terrorism Portal has estimated that 55 civilians, 78 security force personnel, and 244 terrorists were killed in the State in 2009 — the lowest figure since 1990. The figures show just how ill-founded the claims that J&K is a war-zone now are. The United States recorded 5.4 homicides per 100,000 population in 2008. In J&K last year, there were 3.7 terrorism-related deaths per 100,000 population, including combatants.
Policy-makers will, hopefully, continue to draw their lessons from the empirical picture — not television images. There is clear justification for nudging the peace process forward by continuing with careful reductions in troop levels across the State. In addition to cuts in the presence of the Central Reserve Police Force, two divisions of troops were recently withdrawn. In all, more than 30,000 troops have been pulled back since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took office. It would be dangerous, of course, to lose sight of the real threats that lie ahead. Last month’s attempted assassination of pro-dialogue secessionist Fazal Haq Qureshi demonstrated that Pakistan-based jihadist groups, as well as their patrons in that country’s military establishment, remain hostile to peace. Pakistan’s failure to dismantle the infrastructure of jihadist groups has led to continued infiltration across the Line of Control. Last year saw a year-on-year increase in infiltration for the first time since 2002, with an estimated 106 terrorists crossing over in 433 recorded attempts. (There were 342 reported infiltration attempts in 2008.) However, last year’s infiltration levels were nowhere near the 1,373 bids recorded in 2003. Pakistan, it is also true, has so far refused to commit itself to the five principles for a resolution of the dispute arrived at between secret envoys appointed by Prime Minister Singh and former President Pervez Musharraf. Given the turmoil in that country, it is unlikely that any political dispensation will gift its opponents political capital by making concessions on J&K. But even then, there are signs of hope. Few noticed the key small print in President Zardari’s speech: that the thousand-year-war he spoke of would involve not guns, but “pen and mouth.” India must do all it can to encourage and reciprocate this spirit.