Earlier this week, a well known balloonist in India announced that a special Indian hot air balloon would carry Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf from Lahore to Amritsar "in the interest of peace and friendship" between the South Asian neighbours.

Though the hot air balloon pilot did not mention the date for the voyage, it seems the balloon is unlikely to kick high in the air. In fact, the hot air balloon flight would have to wait for cooling of the political hot air between the two countries.

If the hard-hitting statements of the leaders of India and Pakistan against one another - being made in and outside their respective countries - are any indication, the two sides are once again at loggerheads.

Pakistan has accused India and Israel of "state terrorism" that could justify Muslims engaging in guerrilla warfare against them. "State terrorism targets people seeking freedom from foreign occupation, as in Palestine and Kashmir," Pakistani President Musharraf said on Monday.

SirrioHe told a daylong conference of world leaders in New York that there should be no selective application of the international norms and standards against terrorism.

India came down heavily on what it termed as Islamabad's "Kashmir itch" and accused Pakistan of vitiating the positive atmosphere created by New Delhi's initiative to extend a "hand of friendship" to Islamabad.

Pakistani leadership, said an Indian foreign office spokesperson, would do well to "fast" for some time before embarking on their "annual pilgrimage" to the UN.

Sparring between India and Pakistan has become an annual feature on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session and the war of words is expected to heat up further after President Musharraf delivers his address to the UN on Wednesday. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee will address the session the next day. And when Kashmir is burning, each side will find it easy to castigate the other before the world community.

Kashmir is burning again     

The blood of both Islamic militants and the Indian security forces seems to be up again in the disputed Himalayan region that has been the bone of contention between the two countries.

The region is witnessing one of the largest upsurges in violence since a separatist drive began in the state 14 years ago, with militants and soldiers fighting half a dozen gun battles each day.

Even by the standards of Kashmir, where security personnel or militants are killed almost everyday, the state is seeing more violent activity than before.

Although the officials continue to blame “foreign mercenaries” crossing over from Pakistan for the upsurge in violence, there are indications that Kashmir may be set to witness an increase in local youths joining the militant groups.

The killing of nearly three hundred people in the upsurge in violence over the past three weeks has forced the hardliners in both India and Pakistan to harden their stances.

Kashmir has seen rivers of blood before, but the two countries remained in a tentative rapprochement. This created the hope that the peace will not be evading the people of Kashmir for long.

Surge of violence reinforces anger

But Kashmir observers say the surge of violence has reinforced anger in Delhi and Islamabad, which always denies the charge that it is behind the trouble in the state. 

If the killing in the 30 August counter-insurgency operation of Ghazi Baba - the commander of Jaish-e-Muhammad accused of being the mastermind of last year’s terror attack on the Indian Parliament and a similar strike against the state assembly secretariat in Srinagar, the two incidents that had left nearly fifty people dead - was seen as a major breakthrough by the Indian security forces against the militants, the former too were at the receiving end.
 
The worse for India came when a former fighter who broke ranks and joined Indian security forces to combat separatists in Kashmir was killed on 13 September, in an attack on his motorcade in hometown Hajjan. In the sneak attack on Muhammad Yusuf alias Kuka Parray, five of his associates were also killed and several others were wounded.

In his death, the Indian Army lost one of its most trusted men in Kashmir who had turned the tide as he changed sides when the violent campaign for independence had virtually collapsed the Indian authority over the state.

India’s Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani saw in his death a “great loss” to India and the pro-Indian forces in Kashmir. Advani said that the recent spurt of terrorist violence in the country appeared part of a "bigger game plan" of the militants and would be countered. "This has been going on... there is no one small aim. We have to fight it out," he said.
 
The killing came merely two weeks after one of Parray’s close former associates Javed Hussain Shah was shot dead by militants in the Kashmiri capital, the killing that coincided with Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to Srinagar to inaugurate the chief ministers’ conference.

The visit during which Vajpayee was expected to announce a political package in an effort to win over the separatist and other disgruntled political parties was also marred by a two day strike in Valley. Before flying back to New Delhi, he admitted that normalcy has not returned to Jammu and Kashmir.  
 
If the killing of Ghazi Baba encouraged the Indian security forces to hunt for other key players of the violence struggle for independence, the murder of Parray and Shah made them astringent enough to go in for reprisals. They claimed killing more than ninety militants, mostly Islamic fighters from outside India called foreign mercenaries by them.

But in some of these cases, the residents disputed their claims. They took to the roads to protest against “gruesome killings” of the local youth in fake encounters after having been detained on charge of being militants. Kashmir’s police chief Gopal Sharma does not agree. “All those killed were either terrorists eliminated by us in encounters or civilians who were either caught in crossfire or targeted by the terrorists.”
 
Is Pakistan behind the violence?
 
No one is sure why there has been an upsurge in violence. One of the several theories in circulation in Kashmir suggests that since India seems to be reluctant to talk to Pakistan on Kashmir, Islamabad must have thought why not to do something in order to bring it to its knees.

Some also do talk about President Musharraf's own problems back home particularly the rise of the Islamic hardliners who want him to step down. “If Kashmir is burning, he can silence his critics by pleading that in the national interest this is not the right time to disturb him,” says political commentator Tahir Mohiuddin. 
 
What is also possible is that he may have no control at all over the Jihadi outfits like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, known to be mainly involved in the violence in Kashmir. But the fact that indigenous Kashmir group Hezb-ul-Mujahedin too has become active again places a question mark before such an observation.

Tahir feels that by encouraging more and more Kashmiri youth to cross the de facto border to receive arms training, Pakistan, as well as Jihadi groups perhaps, wants to dispel the Indian claim that it is now mainly “foreign mercenaries” who are creating trouble in Kashmir.

Neither wants to give diplomatic edge to India, which will loose the argument if those killed or captured back in Kashmir turn out to be locals. It is also an open secret now that vicious circles are not interested in peace returning to Kashmir.

They strive on both sides. Again, no one can deny the fact the war between various agencies is taking its toll in Kashmir.
 
Hurriyat splits
 
New Delhi’s covert endeavour to win over Kashmir’s main alliance of separatist parties Hurriyat Conference suffered a set back as it tore apart earlier this month.

The buzzing word taking round in Kashmir’s political circles before the split, was that the alliance’s top leadership barring a former chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani and some others were eager to begin talks with it to arrive at a settlement.

But the hardliners led by Geelani preempted the move by causing a split in the conglomerate. He has since taken over as the chairman of the parallel Hurriyat Conference. 
 
Rebels accused the leadership of “deviating” from the Hurriyat Conference agenda and “betraying” the cause of the Kashmiri nation. Reacting to the charge Shia cleric, politician Moulvi Abbas Ansari said, ”What the enemy could not achieve all these years has been done by our own people,” implying that Geelani has weakened the conglomerate, which had emerged as a force to reckon with. But Abbas contracted himself when he claimed that Hurriyat Conference “is intact.”
 
Apparently conscious of the damage inflicted on their credibility by Geelani and supporting outfits, Prof Gani asserts that unless New Delhi acknowledges the people of Kashmir being the principal party to the dispute, no talks could be held with it to find an amicable solution. “We’ll take the struggle to its logical conclusion come what may,” he vowed.

The people have not liked the split in the alliance but blamed the leadership for it. Journalist and political commentator Imdad Husayn seems to be in agreement. He says, “If Geelani has out staged moderates in the Hurriyat Conference it is not him who should be censured for causing the split.

Abbas, Umar and Prof Gani acted recklessly when they began making statements that would clash with the local sensitivities.”
 
Dialogue process is scuttled

Kashmir watchers say that to capture the Hurriyat Conference than opting for new political party is a calculated move. The Hurriyat Conference is the brand name that still sells within and outside Kashmir and it would have been foolish on part of the hawks within the separatist echelons to suddenly plunk it.

Also, it is now an open secret that Pakistan supports the Hurriyat Conference’s stance on Kashmir or vise versa and has, in fact, worked hard to introduce conglomerate to the outside world as the “true representative body of the Kashmiri people.”

Nobody at home and abroad would have accepted the logic behind the swing of supporting a new party and suddenly starting speaking ill of the Hurriyat Conference nurtured all these years.

Hence came the move to takeover the conglomerate.

More importantly, the process of dialogue with the Indian government is likely to be scuttled as Geelani is deadly against any such move unless Pakistan too is involved or, at least, the proposed talks between the two countries are monitored by a third neutral country.

On the other hand, the Abbas faction of the Hurriyat Conference seems to be on a defensive rather than on a damage control exercise to dispel the impression that it was now more close to New Delhi than Islamabad and willing to have a bilateral dialogue with the former.