Does India Have an Endgame in Kashmir?

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Pedro Ugarte / AFP / Getty Images

A relative of Sheikh Yasir, who was fatally wounded on Aug. 31, is cared for by other mourners at his funeral in Srinagar on Sept. 17, 2010

Leaders from every major Indian political party flew to Srinagar this week to demonstrate India's seriousness about resolving the political crisis that has seen months of protests bloodily suppressed in Kashmir. But the three-day meeting ended with little sign that India is willing to try a new strategy, despite the obvious failings of the current one.

For India's political establishment, the best-case scenario would be a return to the relative calm that prevailed from 2004 to 2008. Although India and Pakistan had made little progress in resolving their competing claims over the territory, the "Line of Control" (LOC) established in 1971 between Indian- and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir had assumed the status of a de facto border. New Delhi was pouring development funds into its side of that armistice line, armed militancy by local separatists had been suppressed, and Pakistan seemed to have yielded to U.S. pressure to stop sending over its deadly jihadist proxy forces. That period is remembered in Srinagar — even among some separatist leaders — as a time when the intractable conflict seemed to be fading away. The older generation was tired of fighting, and young people couldn't be bothered.

"Up until 2007, I was of the view that maybe the next generation is not really willing to take this forward," says Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, leader of the moderate wing of the Hurriyat Conference. "You were looking at [Indian cricketer Sachin] Tendulkar and [actor] Shah Rukh Khan and, you know, the corporate India. And everybody was talking about IT and corporates and all that."

Two episodes in 2008 shattered the calm: in June, peaceful mass protests in Srinagar against a controversial decision to allocate land to a Hindu pilgrimage group showed that Kashmiri resentment toward India was as strong as ever; and the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai showed that Pakistan-based militant networks had only been dormant, not dismantled.

The Mumbai massacre prompted India to suspend its ongoing dialogue with Pakistan, and the U.S. and other Western governments joined New Delhi in condemning Pakistan's support for jihadist groups. New Delhi also dug in its heels on Kashmir, refusing to discuss the issue with Pakistan absent a demonstrable reversal of its support for jihadists fighting against India. The renewed hard line on Pakistan resulted in neglect of Kashmir's issues, leaving the popular anger displayed in the 2008 protests to simmer. It was to those demonstrations that today's stone throwers date their movement's origins. "Millions of protesters were out in the streets," one of them tells TIME. "They forced us to pelt stones. We didn't have any other options."

The result has been this summer's alarming death toll: more than 100 people have died since June, as police and paramilitary outfits continue to use deadly force against stone-throwing protesters. Ashok K. Behuria, research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses in New Delhi, says the nature of the recent protests has taken Indian authorities by surprise. Compared with the armed militancy of the 1990s, this is a largely peaceful uprising, with wide popular support. "The armed forces do not know what to do," he says. Absent clear guidelines, the troops simply do what they have always done — use whatever force they think is necessary to suppress a protest, with little fear of prosecution thanks to the legal protection of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

But widespread criticism of the use of force against unarmed protesters, particularly when it results in the deaths of children as young as 8, has shown New Delhi that it cannot completely ignore the popular anger of Kashmiris. Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who is considered a security hawk, has expressed support for modifying the AFSPA so that it can be lifted in some areas of Kashmir, but he has faced stiff opposition from the army.

The political impact of the latest demonstrations has been to restore the relevance of the Kashmiri separatist movement. Those leaders realize that mass protest actions against the Indian state are far more effective than terrorism is in bringing political pressure. The young stone throwers insist that their movement has no leader, but established separatist figures have co-opted their cause. In an interview last month, hard-line separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani claimed the mantle of leadership. Geelani has been issuing a weekly "protest calendar" for shutdowns, protests and days off, but on the street he has no control over spontaneous demonstrations.

The stone pelters respect Geelani, but they have already demonstrated the limit of his influence. After several incidents in which protesters burned government vehicles, Geelani on Aug. 4 called for a halt and a return to peaceful protest: "By indulging in acts of arson, we are harming our own cause." Almost immediately, he faced a backlash both on the Web and from a crowd at a funeral procession, who accused him of playing politics, and was forced to backtrack.

The question of who leads the stone throwers is an important one. The more prominent the roles of Geelani and other hard-line separatists, the easier it is for Indian hawks to assert that this summer's protests aren't a peaceful mass movement at all but rather yet another iteration of Pakistan-sponsored troublemaking in Kashmir. This week's visit by lawmakers did, however, bring Indian politicians face to face with the very real anger of young Kashmiris. In an emotional meeting in the town of Tangmarg, Kashmiris expressed their frustration that India insists Kashmir is a part of India but suspects Kashmiris of being Pakistani agents and uses that suspicion as justification for its security tactics. "Why don't you feel our pain if we are a part of your body?" one asked. Even the Hindu nationalists in the delegation seem to have gotten the message. Arun Jaitley, a leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, told reporters after the trip that Kashmiris' "biggest source of anxiety springs from being told on a daily basis that they are acting at the behest of Pakistan."

But even as India's political class and Kashmir's local leaders took that first step toward understanding each other, Pakistan has stepped into the picture. On Wednesday, Sept. 22, Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, called for international intervention in Kashmir, prompting his Indian counterpart, S.M. Krishna, to demand on Thursday that Pakistan remove its presence from certain parts of the region before presuming to tell India what to do. Both of them are in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, and their sharp words have further complicated the already strained negotiation process between the two countries.

There is, however, still room for New Delhi to make a dramatic gesture toward peace. On Wednesday, the Hindustan Times reported that the Kashmir state government is considering the release of 300 activists who have been arrested in recent months — one of the demands made by the protesters. The repeal of AFSPA, too, is still on the table. But as the Indian government deliberates, this year's bloody summer in Kashmir is already becoming a recruiting tool for jihadists. The group claiming responsibility for the Sept. 19 attack at Delhi's largest mosque mentioned this summer's violence in Kashmir as one of its motivations. If India fails to defuse the stone throwers' anger, it may be only a matter of time before one of the groups operating in the region finds a way to ignite it.

With reporting by Madhur Singh / Mumbai