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 just that 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 told TIME. Instead, the protests and clashes are becoming more intense and violent. "One thing is clear," added Farooq. "[New Delhi] can’t wish the issue away."
(Watch an audio slideshow about Kashmir’s war-weary population.)
Kashmir’s story is complicated. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the territory since 1947, when Muslim-majority Kashmir became part of mostly Hindu India over Pakistan’s objections. 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 either for independence or union with Pakistan, rose up against New Delhi; Islamabad supported some of them, as well as bands of cross-border militants. India sent in some 700,000 troops and paramilitaries, who are still there. The result is a land often convulsed by 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. And by distracting Pakistan from the fight against pro-Taliban jihadists, Kashmir even affects the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.
Today’s protests, however, are not solely driven by lofty ideas of nationhood and autonomy or even material grievances like the poor local economy. The immediate 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, including an 8-year-old boy allegedly killed by paramilitary troops on Aug. 2. With each death, the anger builds. Says protester Rashid: "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 paucity 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 the gun 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 they call themselves, and crowds are drawing their numbers not just from angry young men but also from 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."
(Read "A Violent Crime Resurrects Kashmir’s Call for Freedom.")
The stone pelters have won the respect of a broad spectrum of Kashmiris. Shad Salim is an oncologist in his 50s who returned to Kashmir in 2007 after 20 years abroad. He was dismayed to find that underneath the surface calm, Kashmiris were still subject to security checks and intimidation by security forces, much as they were during the worst of the militancy. "The [same] amount of fireworks wasn’t happening," Salim says. "But all the other things were as they were." He says he isn’t a stone pelter but shares their anger. "The torch of independence has been handed over to them."
These young men are engaged in a 21st century form of protest. They form a rebellion collectively organized through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. (One of the reasons that India finds it difficult to respond to the movement is the fact that it has no obvious leaders with whom New Delhi can negotiate.) Text messages are blocked throughout the Kashmir valley, so young rebels find each other and share news of protests through Facebook pages like "I’m a Kashmiri Stone Pelter." They don’t trust newspapers or television, but debate and share sometimes unreliable reports of the latest shootings on Twitter feeds. Their propaganda medium of choice is the YouTube video, setting handheld digital footage of protests and clashes to music like Everlast’s "Stone in My Hand." Says Rashid: "The local media — they are caged. There is only social media."
New Delhi seems to be getting the message. On Aug. 10, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed the nation over Kashmir — only the third time that an Indian leader had done so. "Manmohan Singh did not respond to us," says Farooq, a moderate who has engaged in years of fruitless talks. "But he responded to [the stone pelters]. It means that what these kids have been doing is getting noticed."
(Read about the 2008 clashes.)
In his address, Singh conceded that "many of [the protesters] have seen nothing but violence and conflict in their lives," and promised a solution "that addresses the alienation and emotional needs of the people." But he offered only one proposal: the formation of a committee to figure out how to create jobs for Kashmir’s 600,000 unemployed. The offer was widely criticized in Srinagar as insultingly inadequate. Saleh, a stone pelter, says that if Singh had delivered jobs to Kashmir earlier, "It may have had a different effect." But bringing up jobs when young people are asking for justice, he says, is an affront. "The timing of the message is important."
Frozen in Time
Saleh’s frustration reflects the fact that while India has moved on after the end of the militancy, Kashmir has not. There are 30,000 troops in and around Srinagar alone, with bunkers and barbed wire strewn around the city’s labyrinth of lanes and squares, even though there are very few militants left to fight. The sense of being occupied is pervasive, and it’s understandable that local youths draw parallels between their struggle and that of the Palestinians. They call their movement a "Kashmiri intifadeh."
Watch TIME’s video "Playing Soccer Amid the Deadly Violence in Kashmir."