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India weighs troop reduction in quieter Kashmir

The demilitarization of Kashmir would represent a final push toward peace between India and Pakistan.

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For the first time in several years, the Indian government on Friday gave indications that it might finally consider the longstanding demands of Kashmiris to reduce its troop presence in the Kashmir valley.

Under persistent pressure from the People's Democratic Party (PDP), a ruling coalition partner in the semiautonomous Kashmiri government, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that India's Defense Ministry has convened a committee of experts to study plans for demilitarizing the region.

For many Kashmiris, the new potential for troop reduction indicates a home stretch in the 17-year-long effort to end the region's violent conflict. Troop reductions in Kashmir would also represent a final push toward peace between India and Pakistan. Two of the three major wars the nations have fought with each other have been closely related to disagreement over the future of the Kashmir Valley.

The number of Indian troops, widely seen as the visible agent of Indian oppression, now stands at nearly 600,000 – a significant increase from 36,000 in 1989 when militancy flared.

But by the Indian government's own estimates, violent deaths have dropped by two-thirds since 2001, to 3 a day from 10, the lowest since 1989. Some 376 terrorists have surrendered to Indian security forces in the three years preceding Nov. 30, 2006, according to India's Home Ministry.

The number of Islamic militants operating in the valley have also decreased to about 1,400 from nearly 10,000 in the early 1990s.

"It is unjustified having so many troops here," says Khurram Pervez, a Kashmiri human rights activist from the Coalition of Civil Society in Srinagar, the region's summer capital. "It's understandable to have, say, 100,000 troops to fight a few hundred militants. Not 600,000."

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