Kashmir's New Warriors

Their cause is not independence or union with Pakistan but the ouster of India's military from their homeland

  • TIME

    Kashmiri youth throw stones and chant anti-Indian slogans during a protest in the city of Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir state, India on Sunday, August 8, 2010.

    For weeks during Kashmir's long, angry summer, the largest mosque in its biggest city was shuttered by the authorities. Then, on Aug. 13, the first Friday of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, worshippers were finally allowed into Srinagar's 600-year-old Jamia Masjid to pray. The mosque's chief cleric, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, mixed his sermon with politics. "Oh, Allah, Ramadan is the month of blessing, of freedom," he said. "Bless us and give us freedom from the Indian occupation."

    In the circular plaza outside, thousands had gathered to demand that very freedom. After his sermon, Farooq, who advocates independence for Kashmir through nonviolence, began leading what he hoped would be a peaceful procession. For a while, it was. Soon, however, the head and tail of the crowd peeled off to confront waiting security forces. Similar scenes were repeated all over the Kashmir valley, and by the end of the afternoon four people were killed and a dozen injured; all had been shot. Farooq was saddened but unsurprised. "India was banking on it — that Ramadan would calm things down," he tells TIME. Instead, the protests and clashes are becoming more intense and violent. "One thing is clear," adds Farooq. "[New Delhi] can't wish the issue away."

    Kashmir's story is complicated. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the territory, a land of spectacular mountains, valleys and lakes, since 1947. In 1999, in the short Kargil war, the world watched in horror as two nuclear-armed nations fought each other. The roots of the conflict go deep. When British-ruled India was partitioned into two states, Kashmir — with a Muslim majority but a Hindu ruler — became part of mostly Hindu India. (Kashmir is India's only Muslim-majority state.) Pakistan, formed to create a homeland for the subcontinent's Muslims, objected and has continued to do so ever since. The two countries negotiated a Line of Control in 1971 dividing Indian and Pakistani Kashmir, but that unofficial border has always been restive. In 1989, Kashmiri rebels, fighting for either independence or union with Pakistan, rose up against New Delhi; Islamabad supported some of the rebels and backed them with bands of militants who crossed the border to help the struggle. India sent in some 700,000 troops and paramilitaries, who are still there. The result is a land often convulsed with violence. It forms the largest obstacle to peace between India and Pakistan (which continues to support militants in Kashmir), as well as a justification for both countries' huge military spending.

    But there is more to the Kashmir problem than that. Locked in conflict with India, Pakistan's military and security establishment has long sponsored extremist groups in Kashmir. This proxy war has distracted Pakistan from its own fight against pro-Taliban jihadists. India, meanwhile, has used Pakistan's involvement in Kashmir to justify its huge security presence and often brutal tactics. India is meant to be a source of stability and democratic values in the region, but the recent unrest in Kashmir calls that notion into question. Kashmir, then, has had a direct impact on the war against jihadist extremism that the U.S. and its allies are fighting.

    Today's protests, however, are not solely driven by lofty ideas of nationhood and autonomy. The issue is the Indian military apparatus in Kashmir. Ranged against it are stone-throwing young men who clash almost daily with security forces. About 60 people have died in the past two months, and with each death the anger builds. Says Rashid, a protester: "When they pick up an 8-year-old boy and beat him to death, how can I resist my feelings?"

    The Stone Age
    New Delhi is struggling to come up with new approaches to Kashmir, but "no one knows quite what to do," says Amitabh Mattoo, a professor of international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. The lack of political, economic and community-building ideas is made all the more desperate by the fact that Kashmir is now rearing its third generation of rebels. The first comprised local politicians who tried to negotiate with New Delhi. The second was made up of separatists and their militant brethren, who took up guns in 1989. The current crop, however, is amorphous. As one protest chant puts it, "Who is our leader? The stone pelter!" Anyone can be a stone pelter, as these rebels call themselves, and their crowds are made up of not just angry young men but also plucky schoolboys, government clerks and elderly shopkeepers. Umar, a 22-year-old wood carver, is one of them. Whenever he hears about a new protest, he says, "I just leave my work and go."

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