Kashmir Chief Is Target of Mounting Public Frustration

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A shoe is hurled toward Jammu and Kashmir state Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, right, during an Independence Day celebration in Srinagar on Aug. 15, 2010

The Kashmiri capital has been dominated by news of stone-throwing protests this summer, but on India's Independence Day, Aug. 15, it was a shoe, not a stone, that grabbed the headlines. During the morning's flag-raising ceremony, a police sub-inspector threw his shoe at Omar Abdullah, the state's embattled chief minister, while Abdullah stood at attention before the Indian tricolor. The shoe didn't come close to its target, and the policeman was immediately arrested, but the damage to Abdullah's already battered reputation was done. Abdul Ahad Jan, the shoe thrower, meanwhile, became an instant hero, as hundreds later gathered outside his house in support.

In an interview with TIME a few hours after the incident, Abdullah brushed it aside. "It was a shoe," he said. "If it had hit me, it probably would have caused a bruise, but that's about it." The police claim that Jan was mentally unstable and had been suspended previously, but so far they have been unable to explain how, in that case, he was allowed into the VIP seating area. "I would obviously like to know how somebody got into the main enclosure who clearly had no business being there," Abdullah said. "But that's a job for the police and the investigating agencies."

The brown leather brogue was only the latest indignity for a man with one of the world's most thankless jobs: as chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Abdullah must try both to sell the Indian government's policies to Kashmiris, many of whom would like to be rid of India, and to uphold the interests of Kashmiris in the Indian government. The region has endured decades of conflict, not only between India and Pakistan, whose talks over Kashmir have been stalled for nearly two years, but also between Indian forces and an armed militancy, which was put down after 20 years of brutal conflict.

Still, the dream of azadi, or freedom, has never quite died, and Kashmiris' unresolved issues against India have taken a new form: a mass protest movement against the Indian military presence, symbolized by young "stone pelters." Over the past two months, they have been in almost daily conflict, and nearly 60 people have been killed since June 11, most of them shot by security forces. As the death toll has risen, so has public criticism of the official response to the riots, but Abdullah's pleas for calm have been ignored by protesters, and his calls for restraint have not changed the troops' tactics.

Every death fuels a new round of protests, and the security forces continue to use live ammunition to fire on protestors armed only with stones. "How do we deal with these protests, and deal with them in a way that we don't lose more lives?" Abdullah said. "Obviously, the security forces need to be as restrained as possible." But as a state official, Abdullah does not have ultimate control over the central government's security forces, and Kashmiris complain that he seems powerless to control the forces, let alone address protesters' demands for a withdrawal of troops, the removal of bunkers and the repeal of draconian security measures that have oppressed day-to-day life in Kashmir for years. "He will not dare to take any step," says Rashid, a regular among the stone-pelting protesters. "He cannot."

Central government officials recently advised Abdullah to go out more among the people and show them that he feels their pain. Like his friend Rahul Gandhi, Abdullah is the scion of a powerful political dynasty, the son and grandson of Kashmiri chief ministers. And like Gandhi, Abdullah faces the widespread perception that he is out of touch with the common man. He has tried to reach out. Abdullah went to console families of the injured last week at Srinagar's largest hospital, where one angry mother caught him by the collar and berated him. The father of the youngest victim, 8-year-old Sameer Ahmad Rah, when asked whether he would want the Indian Prime Minister to visit, said, "Even Omar Abdullah does not bother about us. So how can you talk about Manmohan Singh?" Abdullah insists that he has tried to help this family but acknowledges that he has not met all of them. "Some I've done, some I haven't," he said. "At this point, my primary focus is trying to normalize things."

With another week of protests beginning, that seems like a distant goal, and Srinagar is full of speculation about whether Abdullah may soon resign. He insists that he has not considered it. "It's my responsibility to bring this state as close to normalcy as possible and that's my immediate priority," he says. Even if he does step down, at this point it may have no impact on Kashmiri anger, which is much bigger than just one man. "New Delhi and the media are very keen to put Omar Abdullah on trial," says Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, leader of a moderate separatist faction. "People know that our problem is not Omar Abdullah; our problem is New Delhi."

With reporting by Showkat A. Motta / Srinagar