Kashmir's New Warriors

  • TIME

    Strong feelings Anti-India protesters during an Aug. 8 demonstration in the Indian Kashmir city of Srinagar

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    India's highest-ranking man on the ground, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, acknowledged to TIME that "levels of militancy are at the lowest that they have been for the last 20 years." Intelligence officers estimate that there are only about 500 militants still active in Kashmir, compared to thousands in the 1990s. In Srinagar, Abdullah says, "There is hardly any militancy whatsoever." So why not reduce troop numbers? The official explanation is that the authorities are waiting for calm to return, but there was no significant drawdown even during earlier periods of quiet in the valley. Instead, it seems that India will maintain a large armed presence as a show of strength as long as relations with Pakistan are tense.

    New Delhi also has not addressed the culture of impunity that human-rights activists say has characterized the long counterinsurgency campaign. The failure to bring to justice the perpetrators of the disappearances, extrajudicial killings and rapes committed by security forces, despite documentation of hundreds of cases by human-rights groups, still produces intense bitterness among Kashmiris — and those wounds have been reopened by recent incidents. Among them were the deaths of 80 marchers during the peaceful protests of June 2008, the alleged rape and murder of two young women by security forces in 2009 and the death on June 11 of 17-year-old student Tufail Mattoo that ignited this summer's demonstrations.

    Since the protests resumed, Srinagar has tumbled back into a replay of the curfews and general strikes that disrupted life during the years of militancy. Leaving the house means negotiating both security checkpoints and makeshift barricades set up by the stone pelters. Some businesses have managed to keep running — those that can afford to offer employees meals, dorms and drivers with curfew passes — but most just close down, turning every day into a scavenger hunt for vegetables and milk.

    Young Mattoo was killed by a tear-gas shell, but neither his death nor the deaths of 60 other people this summer have changed the tactics of the Central Reserve Paramilitary Forces (CRPF), which even Kashmir's Law Minister Ali Mohammad Sagar has called "out of control." Prabhakar Tripathy, the CRPF spokesman in Srinagar, says that his troops fire only in self-defense, but those TIME spoke to said they have no specific instructions. "It depends on the situation," says one CRPF soldier posted in the neighborhood of Nowshera. Some troops have even started improvising weapons, answering the stone pelters with marbles launched from homemade slingshots. (One protester lost an eye after being hit by one.) Dr. Waseem Qureshi, medical superintendent of Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar, says there have been 112 injuries among protesters since June, nearly all of them caused by bullets. He has recorded no injuries among members of the security forces.

    The youngest victim to date is 8-year-old Sameer Ahmad Rah, whose death has become a focal point for the protests. The son of a fruit trader, Sameer lived in Batmaloo, a district that was once a hotbed of militancy. On Aug. 2, during yet another day of curfew, the boys in the neighborhood were throwing stones. His father, Fayaz Rah, says Sameer asked to go to his cousin's house in a quieter area nearby. His mother, Fareeda, remembers that Sameer ate his lunch and then left with "a pear and a two-rupee coin in his pocket." It was 3:20 in the afternoon; his parents received Sameer's body about four hours later.

    Rah says that somewhere on the way, a CRPF group caught hold of Sameer and started beating him up, perhaps believing he had been involved in the day's earlier stone-throwing. Neighbors told him later what they saw: "[The troops] took him to a marshy area and threw him to the ground," Rah says. "He hit his head on a stone, and they hit him further with their gun butts." The CRPF denies this version of events. Tripathy says that Sameer died in a stampede during a protest. "We have not at all touched the boy," he says. The local police report simply repeats the CRPF claim, but Rah says this isn't possible. "It was all curfew," he says. "People were not out. How could there be a stampede? It's a lie."

    The family feels powerless to seek justice. Without police endorsement of his account, Rah cannot go to the state's human-rights commission. "I'm a fruit dealer," he says. "I have never been to the courts. I don't know how they will ensure justice." This level of despair is a dark sign for Kashmir's future. Says academic Mattoo: "Confidence in public institutions has been completely eroded."

    Lost Opportunity
    Though India's growing prosperity is uneven, there is a national (and international) sense that the country is boldly marching forward. Not so in Kashmir. New Delhi recently tried to offer economic progress, promising political change later, but the government has yet to deliver on either. As Kashmiris lose patience, that window is closing. So is the chance for dialogue. Having gotten the attention of the Prime Minister, the protesters are unlikely to stop there. "This has worked," says stone pelter Saleh. He and his fellow protesters are demanding, among other things, the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a law that gives security forces broad leeway to operate in Kashmir without fear of oversight or prosecution. After months of inaction, Chief Minister Abdullah now promises that if Srinagar is quiet for a week or so, he can get AFSPA revoked "in a matter of days."

    India's Home Ministry, however, has been reluctant to touch AFSPA because of objections by the army and the political opposition, which rounds on any perceived weakness on Kashmir. A repeal will require the kind of political courage that New Delhi has yet to show in the region. If it continues with the same old strategies — blaming Pakistan for stirring trouble, imposing curfews and superseding talks with bloody crackdowns, it will engender the same cycles of violence.

    According to Radha Kumar, an expert on conflict resolution who has been involved in recent negotiations with separatists, whatever the Indian government does won't work unless it is "something dramatic and bold." In other words, the only effective response to this new generation of Kashmiri stone pelters may well be a new generation of Indian statesmen.

    — with reporting by Showkat A. Motta / Srinagar

    This article originally appeared in the August 30, 2010 issue of TIME Asia magazine.

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