Story Publication logo October 9, 2008

After the Fast


Media file: 332.jpg

Today Maoist insurgents keen to exploit the state's enduring weaknesses stalk the Hindu heartland...

Media file: 1299.jpg
Indian forces on patrol, downtown Srinagar

After a long, hot summer of protests against Indian rule, an uneasy calm descended on the Kashmir valley for the holy month of Ramadan. In a bid to reignite mass protests, separatist leaders had called for another pro-independence march this week on Lal Chowk, the commercial hub of the summer capital. The authorities responded with a two-day, shoot-on-sight curfew. Protests were abandoned. After a crackdown over the past few months that has left at least 45 people dead, mostly killed when troops opened fire on crowds, this was understandable.

A committee of party leaders and trade unions says the protests must go on. For now, they have trained their anger on Pakistan's president, Asif Zardari. He caused a stir when, in an interview published ahead of the scheduled rally, he branded militants operating in Kashmir "terrorists". Members of his own cabinet said he was misquoted. Mr Zardari's effigy was nonetheless burned in some parts of the valley. Hardliners accused him of trying to please India to offset a deepening domestic crisis. His overture was praised in Delhi as recognition of a common security threat.

In India, it is becoming less taboo for commentators in the mainstream press to voice support for Kashmiri independence. There is concern the region may be going back to 1989, when an anti-India revolt erupted in a bloody insurgency that has sputtered on ever since. But the origins of the latest troubles—in a dispute over land transferred for facilities for Hindu pilgrims—are different. Separatist leaders sought to channel the anger the controversy generated but Kashmiri youth stole the show, jamming the streets in their tens of thousands. This compelled divided separatist leaders to close ranks behind them. One, Yasin Malik, a militant who gave up arms in the 1990s, says today's youngsters are even "more angry than his generation", yet committed to non-violence.

Instead of meeting gunfire with gunfire, student activists shot pictures. Abuses by the security forces were recorded and posted on the internet. The clips speak for themselves. "We don't use sticks or guns," says Danish Shervani, a 25-year-old student at the University of Kashmir whose vicious beating was captured on tape by a friend. "We are educated and know other, peaceful ways of advancing our struggle."

For almost all the young protesters, that struggle is for total independence, rather than accession to Pakistan which, like India, claims all of divided Kashmir. Still, India has deployed an estimated 600,000 troops in Kashmir. And despite Mr Zardari's conciliatory remarks, an alarming surge in Islamist terrorism elsewhere in India might make it harder to make any concession to separatists in India's only Muslim-majority state. In August Hindu counter-protesters blockaded the highway connecting Kashmir with the rest of India, causing a food shortage and serious losses for local traders and fruit-farmers. One consequence was to bring forward the scheduled opening to trade later this month of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad highway across the "line of control" that divides Indian and Pakistani Kashmir.

Separatists hope to derail the election now due in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. India's election commissioner was in Srinagar this week to decide when it will be held. Since the collapse of its coalition government in July, the state has been under direct rule from Delhi. Most party spokesmen say the climate is still too charged to hold a ballot, which might be marred by an embarrassing mass boycott. Others counter that a delay would serve only to embolden the separatists. And they seem bold enough already.


teal halftone illustration of praying hands




Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues