Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the creation of an expert panel on Tuesday that would seek ways to create jobs in disputed Kashmir, hit by weeks of violent separatist protests against New Delhi. Singh has been criticised for failing to respond to violence that has killed some 50 people in the past two months, one of the worst outbreaks of unrest since a separatist revolt against New Delhi broke out in Kashmir in 1989. The deaths have hurt hopes of peace in the region, once home to a vibrant tourist industry, which is seen as key to the stability of a broad zone ranging from India to Afghanistan.
“I assure the youth of Jammu and Kashmir that their genuine empowerment will be accorded the highest priority in our Jammu and Kashmir policy,” Singh said in a televised speech. The panel will include C. Rangarajan, a former central bank chief and head of Singh’s economic advisory panel, and N.R. Narayana Murthy, chairman of Indian outsourcer Infosys Technologies. Kashmir has been locked down for most of past two months, and protesters have defied curfews to attack police with stones and set police stations on fire. India’s home minister hinted last week the protests could have been incited by Pakistan.
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. Militant violence has fallen dramatically in recent years but popular protests have continued over a conflict that has so far officially killed about 47,000 people, mostly civilians. Rights groups put the death toll at 100,000.
Despite Singh’s conciliatory tone, senior separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani rejected the initiative. “A reign of terror has been let loose by Indian security forces against a people who peacefully demand freedom from slavery and Indian imperialism,” Geelani said. So far, the latest violence in Kashmir appears to have little impact on efforts between India and Pakistan to improve ties that nose-dived after the 2008 attacks on India’s commercial hub Mumbai, in which 166 people died.