SRINAGAR: There is virtually no prospect in the foreseeable future of long-term peace coming to India’s disputed state of Kashmir, where the army has been called in today to quell a month of clashes between security forces and stone-throwing, mostly young, demonstrators
The past month’s cycle of “bullets for stones” violence, has led to 15 people – most aged between nine and mid-20s – being killed in outrageous over-reactions by security forces.
The violence has been stalled by the army’s presence and a curfew, but there is no prospect of long-term peace. Local demands for some form of autonomy from India are unachievable till an overall agreement is reached by India with neighbouring Pakistan – and that will not happen any time soon, despite the current efforts of Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister.
Kashmir therefore seems doomed to many more years of uncertainty, with periods of violence alternating with relative calm. That means that prospects for the state’s youth are bleak, while the prospects of them becoming increasingly militant are considerable.
After two decades of troubles, generations of youth have grown up in a stone-throwing culture where baiting and attacking security forces, and being viciously attacked and killed in return, is part of regular life from the age of nine or 10.
There is a declining work culture, and job prospects are poor because there is no significant private sector investment. Most companies will not consider investing in an area plagued with such uncertainty. Unemployment is high – 50,000 educated youth registered as unemployed in 2007 and the total figure now will be much higher.
These are the gloomy conclusions I have reached after two visits to Kashmir in the past three months.
On my first visit in April, the mood was hopeful because there had been relative peace since state assembly elections in January last year. I was told everywhere that the time was ripe for Delhi to try to revive informal talks, stalled earlier this year, with leaders of Kashmir’s Hurriyat separatist movement about some form of autonomy.
“It is an ideal time because the government at the centre was elected only last year and the people here endorsed democratic processes (in the state election) so hope for a solution,” said Omar Abdullah, the state’s minister.
It was clear that such talks would not go far because the Hurriyat leaders would insist on including Pakistan in any formal discussions. Just having talks however would have been a positive development and could have led to confidence building measures, though Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a leading Muslim cleric and Hurriyat moderate, told me that he realised there was little chance of Delhi making significant moves such as repealing a despised special police powers act.
Yet hope was in the air and tourists – who have fled in the past few days and weeks – were flocking to Srinagar’s lakes and nearby mountains.
I visited an energetic and thriving school – DPS Srinagar (above) – that was opened in 2003 by the Dhars, a prominent Hindu family in Srinagar. Overcoming local opposition, they have demonstrated what can be achieved despite the backdrop of violence and uncertainty. There are now 3,800 students keenly learning in facilities as good as any in India.
Now DPS along with other schools is closed, as they have all been intermittently for weeks. It did not take long for the hopes of late April to be dashed by clashes between young demonstrators and the security forces, as I saw on my second visit last weekend.
The current crisis began to escalate from June 11 when a 17-year old youth walking home past a demonstration was killed by a tear-gas shell. That triggered a cycle of events with protests, shootings, lathi charges and firing of tear gas shells, plus curfews, bandhs (political strikes that close down whole cities) and local leaders being put under house arrest.
This week’s violence started (after a quieter Saturday evening and Sunday – see Dal Lake picture above) when a young man was drowned trying to escape from security forces, and a 25-year old woman was hit by a stray bullet at her home. There were then two more deaths, after which the army was called in and staged “flag marches” through key areas of Srinagar – the first time this has happened on the streets of the state capital since 1989-90.
The appalling excesses by security forces were underlined on Monday when cities across India were shut down by bandhs against petrol and other price rises. Buses were set on fire, police attacked, and politicians provoked security forces to arrest them. Yet nowhere in the country was anyone killed – though people were the next day in Kashmir.
The Kashmir police and India’s paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) are behaving as though they are still dealing with the Pakistan-backed insurgency and terrorism that hit Kashmir 20 years ago and died away towards the end of the last decade. They have received no training in how to deal with civilian street protests and thus treat them as threats that can be eliminated.
This points to the basic problem affecting the state. The mind-set of both the Kashmir and Delhi governments is still rooted in the days of the insurgency and neither politicians nor officials have adjusted to the fact that they are now dealing with protestors who have, to coin phrase, given up the gun and resort instead to stones. Yet the official response is still the gun.
It is scarcely surprising that “Go India Go Back” has become a current slogan, newly scrawled on walls and printed on banners.
Some facets of the Pakistan-backed insurgency of course continue. Pakistan is still allowing militants to cross its border into Kashmir. Officials say that the infiltrators carry money to help and encourage organisers of the demonstrations. There are also continuing military clashes on the border – two Indian troops were killed in the past couple of days during exchanges of fire in Jammu, south of the Kashmir valley.
In Pakistan yesterday, militant groups held anti-India protests. “I want to assure my brothers in Indian-occupied Kashmir that we will continue to support you until we liberate every inch of our motherland from Indian subjugation,” said Syed Salahuddin, a leader of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.
A weak Jammu & Kashmir government is also contributing to the problems. Abdullah, aged 40, has failed to live up to hopes that he would bring new energy and direction to the chief minister’s job. He has failed both to assert his authority and to strike a chord with the Mirwaiz, who is 37, and Mehbooba Mufti Sayeed, 51, the leader of the opposition who is more interested in undermining him.
A few years ago, I was told by a senior British diplomat that peace could never come to Kashmir till the Indian government acknowledged, to itself and publicly, that its security forces had been involved in appalling human rights abuses. That, said the diplomat, was the lesson of Northern Ireland where London only made progress on a settlement after it made that acknowledgement.
Sadly, the behaviour of the security forces in just the last few days, let alone the last 20 years, shows that neither the current Kashmir government nor India’s Home Ministry is prepared for such a mea culpa on human rights abuses.
What hope is there then for the state’s youth? And what will they be throwing in the future if stones prove useless – grenades and bombs again, with Pakistan eagerly feeding their needs?