The Indian government said it would halt operations against separatist militants in Jammu and Kashmir State during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on Thursday. It was the first time in 18 years that the Indian government declared a cease-fire for Ramadan in the territory.
Over the last year, Kashmir has been sliding deeper into turmoil, with dozens of militants killed, huge protests erupting and a heavy sense of despair settling over the disputed territory. Many Kashmiris expressed hope on Thursday that the letup in security operations would calm tensions and reinvigorate efforts to find peace.
“This is the right time for a cease-fire,” said Bashir Ahmed Khanday, whose son, a militant, was recently killed. “No one wants to see his son come home wrapped in a shroud.”
Kashmir, a Himalayan mountain valley known for spectacular beauty, has been submerged in bloody conflicts for more than 70 years. Both India and Pakistan claim it, and the battles over this area have killed tens of thousands of people.
Kashmir is predominantly Muslim and most of the Kashmir Valley is controlled by India, which is majority Hindu. Pakistan is predominantly Muslim and has historically supported Kashmir’s separatists against Indian forces.
The Indian government is clearly trying to win some points among Muslims by pausing operations during Ramadan, one of the holiest periods of the year. But getting the Indian Army and intelligence agencies to go along with the decision must have been difficult. Security officials have said they have killed more than 70 militants this year.
It appears that Kashmir’s leading political party, the Peoples Democratic Party, leaned heavily on India’s central government to stop operations during Ramadan, which lasts until mid-June, to give peace talks a better chance of succeeding. Many Kashmiris have lost faith in the party, seeing it as having betrayed its mission after it allied itself with the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party that dominates Indian politics.
As the killings on all sides have increased, the state’s chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, has found herself more and more isolated. A reinvigorated peace process would benefit her as well.
“Guns are not yielding any results,” she said in an interview on Thursday.
The Indian government said it retained the right to strike if attacked or if civilians were found to be in danger.
It is unclear how much traction the announcement will have with militants in Kashmir. For Islamist militants around the world, being martyred in an operation during Ramadan is considered especially heroic. One Pakistan-based group that operates in Kashmir, Lashkar-e-Taiba, ridiculed the cease-fire as a “sin” and vowed to continue attacks.
The last time the Indian government declared a unilateral cease-fire in Kashmir was during Ramadan in 2000. Analysts criticized it as ineffective, saying it only gave militants breathing room to dig in and regroup, concerns that were echoed on Thursday.
Pakistan and India tried a cease-fire in 2003 along the disputed border. That cease-fire is still in place, but in name only. Both countries have continued to fire bullets and artillery shells across the border, killing many on each side. According to monitors, in just this year alone, the cease-fire has been violated more than a thousand times.
Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister in Kashmir, said that over the years, India’s central government has made many big promises for Kashmir but in the end has never followed through.
“After Ramadan, what next?” he asked. “How do you propose to use this period to reduce the level of anger and levels of alienation and reduce the number of people joining militancy?”