NEW DELHI – India has withdrawn at least 3,000 troops from Jammu and Kashmir state as the level of violence there falls, the country’s defence minister and army chief said on Monday.
Earlier, government and military officials said a total of 15,000 troops would be withdrawn in phases. But Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee said only a brigade was being moved for now — at least 3,000 troops, according to army officials. “One brigade, we are not withdrawing as such but re-deploying them to the north-east,” Mukherjee told reporters, referring to India’s north-eastern states, where troops are battling a number of separatist insurgencies. “It is a routine exercise and, of course, the decision has been taken in view of the fact that the level of violence has come down.” An estimated half a million soldiers are based in the Himalayan state, many of them fighting Islamic militants opposed to New Delhi’s rule there.
New Delhi had earlier rejected suggestions by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that it should cut troop levels in Kashmir, arguing that any demilitarisation would be a sovereign Indian decision.
Analysts said the troop reduction, although small in number, would be seen as a gesture towards the peace process with Pakistan and towards the Kashmiris themselves.“While we did not want to be seen as being nudged by Pakistan, India was coming around to this,” Uday Bhaskar, deputy director of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, said.“This step was the result of the convergence of Pakistani demands and India’s internal security assessment.”
India’s Chief of Army Staff General J.J. Singh said the brigade had already left Kashmir and been deployed in the eastern state of West Bengal. Further withdrawals could be considered.While the two countries have strengthened transport, cultural and sporting links since starting the peace process two years ago, they have made little headway on tackling the dispute over Kashmir, the cause of two of their three wars since independence from British rule in 1947.
Indian officials say violence has declined in Kashmir since the peace process began. But they have also been urging Islamabad to do more to fully stop the flow of Islamic militants from Pakistan into Indian Kashmir. Islamabad says it is doing all it can to prevent militants crossing and has instead asked New Delhi to begin talks to resolve the territory’s future.