|Most armed groups active in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir favour secession to Pakistan [AFP]
India plans to reduce its security forces by a quarter in the Himalayan region of Kashmir to ease conditions for locals in one of the world's most militarised areas, a senior official has said.
The announcement made by G K Pillai, India's home secretary, was intended to rebuild fractured public goodwill after a violent uprising by young people in the Muslim-majority region last year.
Speaking at a university seminar in New Delhi on Friday, Pillai said the government was looking to cut troops by "25 per cent in 12 months from populated areas."
"If we can manage with local police, that would be the most ideal situation, and this is one of the confidence-building measures - that people don't get harassed by the over-presence of security forces," Pillai said.
"If peace comes, if violence is not there, people are comfortable, we can gradually reduce our presence and make sure that all forces are there only at the border for preventing infiltration."
The unexpected announcement was apparently intended at rebuilding fractured public goodwill after a violent uprising by young people in the Muslim-majority region last year.
But Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a Kashmiri separatist leader, dismissed the government's plan, and said India was trying to "hoodwink" the international community by announcing such things.
"I will be only satisfied when all the Indian forces stationed in Kashmir are withdrawn," Geelani said.
"The Indian government is always trying to fool Kashmiris by promising troop withdrawals but nothing changes on the ground. Violence and injustice continues in the valley."
The insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir has plagued the restive region for almost two decades, claiming more than 47,000 lives, according to the Indian government.
Last summer, Kashmir was rocked by violent demonstrations that left about 114 people dead, mostly in firing by police and paramilitary forces.
However, violence in the region has declined since India and Pakistan began a peace process in 2004, aimed at resolving all pending disputes including Kashmir. The region is divided between the two rivals, who both claim it in full.
Kashmir is split along a UN-monitored line of control and has been the trigger for two wars fought between the neighbours since they declared independence in 1947.
The majority of armed groups active in the Indian-administered part of the region favour its secession from India to Pakistan.
On Friday Zamir Akram, Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said the United States could get involved in finding a solution to the Kashmir dispute by helping to allay Pakistan's fears about India.
He pointed out Pakistan's concerns about its bigger neighbour, that stretch from nuclear weapons to energy supply, a strategic build-up in the region, and of being surrounded to the west and east by neighbours with which it has tensions, Afghanistan and India.
He said attempts by India and Pakistan to negotiate a settlement were derailed or lost momentum after 2006 because of Hindu and Muslim "extremist" groups in each country.
In December 2009, the Indian army said it had pulled out 30,000 troops from Kashmir, one of the biggest military drawdowns in a decade.
India also announced an eight-point confidence-building initiative in September to help calm the June protests, which included scaling back security, offering talks and giving compensation to families of dead protesters.
However, any lasting peace in the region is unlikely without the involvement of Pakistan; whatever solution India comes up with may only help douse the current round of protests and not resolve the separatist revolt.