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Kashmir’s summers of discontent

For the third consecutive year in 2010, Indian administered Kashmir witnessed a tumultuous summer. Peerzada Arshad Hamid revisits the hot summers of Kashmir.

Srinagar, Jan 5, 2011:

Hot summer
Kashmir has seen unrest for three summers in a row

For the third consecutive year in 2010 Indian administered Kashmir witnessed a tumultuous summer. A summer that dwarfed the unrest of previous two years - be it in terms of public protests, killings or shutdowns and curfews.

Since June more than 110 civilians, mostly teenagers and young men were killed and at least 2000 others wounded in police and paramilitary shooting on protesters across the Muslim majority region.

The trouble started in June with the killing of an 11-year-old boy Tufail Matoo of Srinagar, the region’s summer capital. Matoo was hit by a tear smoke shell fired by policemen in June 11. His family said he was returning from a private tuition centre and was not part of any protest demonstration.

Matoo’s killing triggered further protests and lead to a bloody cycle of killings, where each killing led to protests, and each protest lead to a killing. In 100 days from Matoo’s killing Kashmir saw 100 people dead at the hands of police and paramilitary troops. The toll increased in subsequent weeks.

The anger among people took the form of an agitation, with hardline faction of Hurriyat Conference trying to assume the lead role. Its firebrand leader Masrat Alam launched a “Quit India movement” asking Indian troops stationed in the region to withdraw. Alam issued protest calendars every week or so trying to control life in the region and giving tough time not only to the local government but to New Delhi as well.

Initially the protest calendars had elements of public protests, some of them novel like protests on social networking sites, graffiti. Later the larger part of the calendars comprised of shutdowns, to which the authorities reacted by clamping down incessant curfews. The protests-shutdown-curfew-killings-curfew cycle, came to dominate the summer of 2010.

Alam also introduced graffiti as a means of peaceful protest in Kashmir. “Write, Go India back, Go back, on walls, roads, and internet discussion boards,” he urged. Slowly, but steadily, the graffiti picked up, and soon authorities had a lot of work, wiping off the anti-India graffiti from roads and walls.

Use of force by government to curb protests led to killings, which consequently led to more violent confrontations, with protesters hurling stones and bricks on contingents of police and India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel. The latter responded by tear smoke shells and bullets, which often proved fatal.

Frustrated by the repeated killings people began targeting symbols of the government – railway tracks, police stations and government offices.

The government kept on increasing the tempo of its clampdown. It arrested separatist leaders and youth on charges of stone pelting under Public Safety Act (PSA). Besides this, it imposed a strict curfew in the region for days together. Any person can be detained under PSA for two years without any trial or charges.

The authorities also sought help from the army stationed in the region to quell the protests. India army staged a flag march in Srinagar city and other towns.

The civilian protest is not a new phenomenon in Kashmir. The armed insurgency in 1989 too began with mass civilian protests. However, the protests took a back seat with the emergence of armed militants on the scene. Hundreds of Kashmiri youth crossed to Pakistan administered Kashmir for arms training there with the aim to push New Delhi out of Kashmir. India rushed in large number of military and paramilitary troopers to take on militants here, whose numbers dwindled over the years. Most of them were killed in gunfights or arrested. One of the first known militant groups Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a pro-Independence group that waged an armed insurgency against New Delhi’s rule in 1989 declared unilateral ceasefire in 1994. Its chairman Mohammed Yasin Malik renounced violence and took to non-violent Gandhian ways of protest against Indian rule in Kashmir. He says he has pledged to carry on the resistance politically.

Another major militant group in the 1990’s Hizbul Mujahideen is still active. Its commander Syed Salahudin is operating from his base in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan administered Kashmir. A guerrilla war is also going on between militants and the Indian troops stationed in the region over the past two decades.

Kashmir, the Himalayan region divided between India and Pakistan is claimed by both in full. Since their Independence from British, the two countries have fought three wars, two exclusively over Kashmir.

Indian officials say there are less than 500 militants active in the region. However, the huge military presence dominates region’s life. Officially India does not reveal the actual number of its troops deployed in Kashmir. Rights groups say that India has deployed more than 700,000 troops in the region to counter militants fighting in the region. The Guinness World Records - Book 2009 has described Kashmir as the “largest militarized territorial dispute”.

New Delhi has imposed the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in the region, which gives extraordinary powers to its troops such as shooting a person on mere suspicion. Indian troops are consistently been accused of grave human rights violations in the region in the last two decades.

Earlier this year, Indian army personnel were accused of killing an old aged person in a staged encounter. Army officials maintained the slain person was a militant. However, the victim turned out to be 70-year-old Habibullah Khan of Devar-Lolab of frontier Kupwara district. Khan according to his family was a beggar.

In another case, a police investigation into the disappearance of three youth of village Nadhihal in Baramulla district led to exhumation of three bodies from graves at a graveyard in Kalaroos Machil sector. According to army the graves were holding bodies of militants that were killed by them on April 30 during an infiltration bid near Line of Control (LoC) - the de-facto border that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

The bodies turned out to be three missing youth from Nadihal. Matoo’s killing came on a day when the Valley was protesting the killing of these youth in a staged gunfight by Indian army men on LoC.

Indian army intermittently releases press releases to the media about foiling of infiltration bids along LoC. Media has limited access to such places and most of the times such reports are carried out without verification.

Human rights groups say that around 8000 to 10000 people in the region have been subjected to enforced disappearances in the region since 1989. However, the local government has always contested the numbers. An association of parents of disappeared persons (APDP) is fighting for the cause of disappeared in Kashmir. Every month, APDP stages a sit-in protest to attract attention of the local government and international community vis-à-vis Kashmir’s disappeared.

Separatist and some pro-Indian parties including Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and National Conference (NC) are demanding demilitarization of the region and scrapping of special powers to the stationed troops. The demand is being opposed by Indian army, who very recently described AFSPA as the “holy book”. AFSPA provides troopers with a cover from being tried in a civilian court, for a civilian court requires the permission of home ministry in such a matter. Rights activists say more than 400 such cases are still waiting the home ministry sanction.

Rights bodies at local and international level were highly critical of the Indian government for detaining and shooting protesters in the recent unrest. The London-based human rights group Amnesty International called on Indian authorities to take urgent steps to ensure respect for the right to life and to investigate past killings of demonstrators by police. The U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon also called for an immediate end to violence.

The civilian deaths pushed the region on the edge and mounting pressure on Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, the grandson of Kashmir’s known leader Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah. The third generation Abdullah got the reins of the troubled state after forming a coalition with Congress party. The junior Abdullah had to face an uphill task in dealing with the situation that sullied his image from “young and energetic” to “novice and inexperienced”.

In the summers of 2009 Abdullah faced the first litmus test after two women aged 17 and 23 years were found dead under mysterious circumstances in the Shopian town, 50-km south of Srinagar. The locals alleged the duo were first raped and then murdered. They suspected the hand of Indian troopers in the incident.

Initially Abdullah maintained the duo died due to drowning but later had to eat his words and order a judicial probe under tremendous pressure from people and opposition parties. The judicial commission headed by retired judge Justice Muzaffar Jan apparently failed to identify the culprits behind the incident but it indicted four police officials for not having investigated the case properly and contributing to the destruction, dissipation and suppression of evidence in the case. The Shopian town observed a 47-day-long shutdown over the incident. The strike was called off on the appeal of the then region’s chief justice, Barin Ghosh, that fair investigation would be made. Later on Central Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI) findings into the incident concluded the two women in Shopian town were not raped and murdered but died due to drowning. CBI is the India’s premier investigating agency.

Locals are not ready to buy CBI argument. The Shopian case is still sub-judice.

Abdullah emerged on the political scene on the cinders of 2008 crisis which consumed the Congress-PDP coalition government. The crisis over disagreement on the transfer of 100 acres of forest land to a Hindu shrine board - for building infrastructure- brought the region to boil. The move was opposed by the locals fearing transfer of land to non-state subjects would finally result in changing demography of the region. The standoff took a communal colour and rightwing Hindu activists disrupted the transportation of essential supplies to Muslim majority areas and thereby imposing an economic blockade on them. PDP was a signatory to the transfer order but pulled out of the coalition demanding that the Congress Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad revoke the order. Azad’s tenure saw some of the biggest pro-independence rallies in the Muslim majority areas of region.

Azad couldn’t take the decision owing to its Hindu vote bank in Jammu. He finally tendered his resignation without taking the test on the floor of the house.

His departure was followed by Governor’s rule in the region. After the controversial land transfer order was rescinded, Hindu dominated Jammu province rose up again, The activists of right wing Hindu groups intensified the economic blockade of Kashmir valley by attacking supply trucks on the only road link to Kashmir.

In retaliation Kashmiris demanded that Valley’s traditional route with Muzaffarabad (under Pakistan’s control) be opened. A new wave of agitations began with hundreds of thousands coming out on roads, demanding freedom.

The government responded with a curfew and police firings. More than 60 people were killed and scores injured in police firings across the region.

After months of Governor’s rule, New Delhi held Assembly elections. The 2008 Assembly elections recorded high voter turnout but the outcome was a fractured verdict and of a hung assembly. No political party had enough seats to claim the throne singlehandedly. In the house of 87-seat assembly, the Congress party sided with NC to form an alliance. NC and Congress together have 45 seats, one more than the required magic figure of 44 to form the government. Omar Abdullah was chosen to head the coalition government with the blessings of Congress party at New Delhi.

Abdullah could not handle the affairs of the state right from day one and had to face the criticism from within the party. The Shopian incident and other incidents of killings took the Chief Minister unawares and made him a soft target of the opposition. Abdullah was also not taken seriously by the top police and army officials. The revelation came out when a senior minister in his government, Ali Mohammed Sagar in a press conference accused CRPF of killing the youth and operating at their own. Critics say Abdullah had made his mind to tender the resignation but New Delhi prevailed upon him not to see another chief minister being hooted out by the people. Azad was the first one.

Omar’s mishandling and New Delhi interference had widened the gulf between India and Kashmir. The crisis reinforced the anti-India sentiment that runs deep in Kashmir.

This year’s summer unrest overburdened hospitals with the huge number of injured. There is no official data available about the number of injured over the last three months. However, unconfirmed data says more than 2000 people including police and CRPF men have got injured. Hospitals faced shortage of medicines and blood banks were running short of blood. The health officials at main hospitals in Srinagar had to make public appeal for blood donation to cope up with the patient rush.

Some protesters took the fight to virtual world and were seen active on social networking sites and Internet. These Web-savvy protesters uploaded videos and photographs of police brutality and mass protests on You Tube and Facebook, thereby triggering debates and discussions.

Both local government and New Delhi battled hard to contain the protests.

Analysts said the civilian protests gave new dimension to the Kashmir revolt, which cannot be easily demonised, even in a world obsessed with fighting terrorism. The stone throwing young men changed the paradigm of the conflict and forced Government of India to talk about popular anger and legitimate aspirations.

To address that aspiration New Delhi first dispatched a delegation of parliamentarians to the region to know “ground realities”. Back home on their recommendations New Delhi announced eight-point initiative to address Kashmir’s ongoing unrest.

Lately Indian government appointed three interlocutors to talk with ‘all shades of opinion’ including the separatists. The separatists have outright rejected to meet them.

Kashmir has boiled down for now. But, is the current calm a temporary one like we saw in winters of 2008 and 2009?




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