WILL Barack Obama, who arrives in India for his first official tour of the country in the next few days, be forced to utter the K-word? America has a tried-and-tested formula when asked if it will get involved in troubled Kashmir: after some 60 years of conflict, unless both Pakistan and India seek outsiders’ assistance, it will not push itself forward. And since India has no intention of doing so, that means America will stay away.
Yet as a presidential candidate Mr Obama promised to seek some sort of diplomatic resolution in Kashmir. He talked of deploying an envoy to encourage peaceful progress there. His envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, has mightily annoyed the Indians in the past by bringing up Kashmir as relevant to the wider region.
All this might have been quietly forgotten in Mr Obama's forthcoming trip, except for thedreadful events of the past five months, in which Indian security forces have killed more than 110 Kashmiri separatist protesters, some of whom had hurled stones at police, and injured many more.
As winter approaches in Kashmir—autumn leaves are being burnt in bonfires on roads, bundles of hay and cartloads of firewood are being brought in to the steep-rooved houses—there is no obvious sign of things improving. This week the state government closed its offices in Srinagar, the summer capital, and sent a convoy of 100 or so lorries to Jammu, the winter one, full of the paraphernalia of government. This could mark the start of a calmer period in the Kashmir valley, but in some places the authorities still feel the need to impose a curfew, and all over the region separatist and nationalist leaders enforce a largely effective hartal, or boycott of business activity, on most days of the month.
This week in Srinagar young boys continued to hurl stones at the police and other security forces, who are on the streets in great numbers. A visit by the Indian home minister did nothing to quell the anger. The deployment of a group of three independent “interlocutors” to the region, from Delhi, has so far served merely to provoke a backlash from Hindu nationalist agitators in other parts of India.
Anxiety lingers, too, over the coming year. This summer's protests had one saving grace: the Kashmiris used no weapons more powerful than stones. But anger among young Kashmiris is growing. Summer protests in 2008 and 2009 built up to this year's. With each death, and each example of police brutality, they grow more resentful and more radical.
Next year could be grimmer still. Kashmiris are eyeing events not far away, in Afghanistan, where 2011 could mark the start of the first efforts to withdraw NATO soldiers. Some draw comparisons to the withdrawal of Soviet forces at the end of the 1980s. That, by inspiring some Kashmiris to believe that “imperial” India could also be chased away through militant warfare, eventually led to violent conflict in the 1990s.
The authorities in Delhi are also watching events in Afghanistan closely. Any sign that the Taliban might have a chance of moving closer to power again in Kabul deeply troubles the Indians, who see the movement as close to Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, which is routinely blamed for trying to stir up violence in Kashmir and for inserting armed militants across the India-Pakistan line of control. All this, in other words, comes close to the most important foreign-affairs issue facing Mr Obama: how to get out of Afghanistan. In private, at least, he may feel obliged to utter the K-word.