The past as present
It is part of the enduring tragedy of Kashmir that waves of wide and sustained public protests there receive little international attention, much less evoke the concern of governments across the world. Inattention, however, doesn`t make the issue go away.
For weeks now, Indian-held Kashmir has been in turmoil. The unrest was ignited by the killing on June 11 of an unarmed 17-year-old student by a tear gas shell during a demonstration in Srinagar. The uproar intensified as angry stone-pelting youths took to the streets in protest. Each subsequent clash with the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and killing of peaceful demonstrators stoked public anger and catalysed more furious protest as unrest spread across the Valley.
On July 6, at least four protestors were shot and killed in Srinagar in desperate efforts by the trigger-prone paramilitary forces to quell the agitation. Scores of demonstrators were injured in the crackdown that followed. Curfew was imposed in much of Kashmir, with thousands of Indian troops deployed to enforce it. But they were unable to dampen the anti-India protests that continue in defiance of the clampdown. The army was called out for crowd control in the capital for the first time in over a decade—a move that symbolised India`s stunning failure in Kashmir. Life was paralysed by the security lockdown and a general strike called in protest over the killings of over 15 civilians in less than a month. Most of those shot by security forces were teenagers.
Chants of freedom resonated throughout the Valley—at the funerals of the martyred, in the mosques, in hospital compounds and at public rallies in towns and villages. This stressed the unchanged reality of Kashmir where every protest morphs into the popular demand for an end to Indian occupation. This pattern has repeated itself with ever greater intensity and is exemplified by the widespread mass protests last year and even bigger ones in 2008. That it takes but a spark to set off a storm of anti-India protest belies New Delhi`s claim that state elections have "settled" the Kashmir issue.
The ongoing ferment highlights aspects of both change and continuity in the situation in Indian-held Kashmir. The first and most significant dimension of change is that the young have been in the forefront of the protests. The mass agitation in the summer of 2008 and 2009 was also youth-led and driven. This means that a new generation of Kashmiris is defining the resistance movement—a generation which has grown up in the oppressive and militarised environment that still makes Kashmir the world`s most densely armed region.
A generation that has suffered the daily humiliation of occupation is increasingly describing its protest as an intifada in "Asia`s Palestine." As Arundhati Roy perceptively noted in 2008, "Raised in a playground of armed camps, checkpoints and bunkers…the young generation has…discovered the power of mass protest." A more politically assertive younger generation has emerged from the demographic shifts that have been underway, as well as their enhanced ability to coordinate and organise protests that has been facilitated by the new technology.
The 2010 street protests resemble those in 2009 and 2008, in that Kashmiri leaders have followed rather than led them, a fact acknowledged by the chief of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. Like other APHC figures he has often warned of the radicalisation of youth if their demands do not find a democratic solution. Yasin Malik too has been cautioning that frustration among the young can take a violent turn if their grievances are not addressed.
A second factor that makes for change is that the protests reinforce a new phase in the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination which started with the popular protests of 2008. In a context where militant violence has ebbed, the decades-old freedom movement has increasingly been transforming itself into a peaceful civil disobedience campaign. The mass protests in three consecutive years attest to the fact that the Kashmiri resistance is increasingly assuming the shape of a popular, non-violent movement. This has made it much harder for the Indian authorities to demonise or de-legitimise it, and even harder for them to blame the unrest on militants or Pakistan`s intervention.
When the Indian home minister, P Chidambaram, recently tried to blame the Kashmir upheaval on the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the allegation got little traction even in India. The Mirwaiz characterised his remarks as signifying the "ostrich-like mindset of the Indian government" that chooses to remain in denial.
Factors that represent striking continuity with the past and that have been further reinforced in the current turmoil are obvious: New Delhi`s spectacular failure to politically engage with the Kashmir issue as well as the singular inability of the state government to defuse the crisis. The Indian government has shown once again that repression is its only answer to Kashmiri demands.
For all the noise New Delhi routinely makes about seeking a dialogue with the Hurriyat leaders, the reality is that the Indian authorities have shown an utter lack of seriousness or will to pursue meaningful engagement to find a genuine solution. It is neither prepared to talk to Pakistan nor to the Kashmiri leaders on terms other than its own.
Instead, the Indian government has continued to resort to force to deal with the situation. This points to the most enduring feature of the Kashmiri landscape: the infrastructure of repression and control that is mobilised and deployed to staunch mass protests when they re-erupt. The ongoing round of agitation has met a familiar response. The heavy-handed use of force has involved a ruthless crackdown, curfews, house-to-house searches, shoot-on-sight orders and yet more killings, including that of a nine-year-old boy.
The culture of oppression spawned over decades of Indian occupation remains in place even though militant violence is at its lowest point since the uprising began in 1989, according to the Indian authorities themselves. Yet security forces use excessive force to quell protests in which civilians are only armed with stones. The effort by the chief of the CRPF to cast "stone-pelting" as "a new form of gunless terrorism" is so disingenuous that it merits no response.
Indian security forces continue to act with impunity under the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives them sweeping powers to shoot, arrest or search without warrant, and kill on suspicion. The environment of coercion and repression that has long been in place cannot be transformed unless the demands of Kashmiri leaders in this regard are met. They include the repeal of AFSPA, end to arbitrary detentions and search-and-cordon operations, release of all political prisoners, cessation of extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses.
For the third successive year young Kashmiris have shown a resolve to orchestrate their own "referendum" and intensify their call for India to abandon its occupation. The world community chooses to ignore the situation, leaving it to human rights organisations to voice concern about the most egregious conduct of the Indian security forces. Last month Amnesty International called on the Indian authorities to investigate all the killings.
Meanwhile, with Pakistan-India relations back in the default mode of no-war, no-peace, and a confidence-building process serving as an excuse not to settle disputes, this does not hold out any promise of alleviating the plight of the Kashmiri people and mitigating the tensions in the state. But paralysis in peace-making and international indifference serves to heighten rather than diminish the danger of instability. The current protests are no passing episodes but emblematic of a people`s yearning to be free.
The lesson of history can only be ignored at great peril. The ruthless suppression of peaceful protests against Indian occupation two decades ago led to armed resistance and violent conflict. There is untold danger if that history repeats itself.