Kashmir Rumbles, Rattling Old Rivals

21 August 2008
The New York Times
SOMINI SENGUPTA

New York: Born and reared during the bloodiest years of insurgency and counterinsurgency, inheritors of rage, a new generation of young Kashmiris poured into the streets by the tens of thousands over the past several weeks, with stones in their fists and an old slogan on their lips: “Azadi,” or freedom, from India.Kashmiri Muslims headed to a United Nations office in Srinagar on Monday to press their cause.Their protests in Indian-controlled Kashmir were part of an unexpected outburst of discontent set off by a dispute over a 99-acre piece of land, which has for more than two months been stoked by both separatist leaders in Muslim-majority Kashmir and Hindu nationalists elsewhere in India.Overnight, the unrest has threatened to breathe new life into the old and treacherous dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, which is claimed by both nations and lies at the heart of 60 years of bitterness between them, including two wars.Disastrously for the Indian government, Kashmir has burst onto center stage at a time of growing turmoil in the region - with the resignation this week of Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, who had sought to temper his country’s backing for anti-Indian militancy here.Even though the two countries have been engaged in four years of peace talks, India has grown nervous that the disarray in Pakistan has left it with no negotiating partner. From New Delhi’s perspective, that power vacuum has allowed anti-Indian elements in Pakistan’s intelligence services and the militant groups they employ to pursue their agenda with renewed vigor.Relations between the countries have become newly embittered as Indian and Pakistani forces have engaged in skirmishes across the Line of Control that divides Kashmir between them for the first time in years.Not least, India has blamed the Pakistani intelligence services for playing a hidden role in the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan last month, a charge that Pakistan vehemently denies.The latest unrest here has only added to the difficulties of renewed dialogue.How long this agitation will continue depends on both India’s capacity to assuage Kashmiri separatist leaders, and their ability in turn to control the sudden eruption of rage among the young.The largest, most intense demonstration in years took place on Monday, as tens of thousands of Kashmiris, mostly men, streamed into an open area in the city center to demand independence from India. They came in motorcycle cavalcades, and on the backs of trucks and buses.A few waved Pakistani flags. Some shouted praise for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the banned Pakistan-based militant organization that India blames for a series of terrorist attacks in recent years. “India, your death will come,” they chanted. “Lashkar will come. Lashkar will come.”By Tuesday, traffic had returned to the city, as the separatists called for a three-day suspension of the strike. Shops and cafes reopened. The pro-Pakistan graffiti had been covered up, as though it were again an ordinary day.Another mass gathering, however, is planned for Friday at the martyrs’ cemetery, where two generations of those killed in the conflict are buried, with all the potential to become yet another flash point of conflict.Again and again, Kashmiris from across the political spectrum said these scenes reminded them of the peak of the anti-Indian rebellion in the early 1990s, except at that time, separatist guerrillas, aided by Pakistan, openly roamed the streets with guns.Nineteen years after that rebellion kicked off, the current demonstrations have pierced what seemed, perhaps deceptively to the Indian government, like a return of the ordinary here.Earlier this year, tourists were flocking to Dal Lake in Kashmir. Buses were running twice monthly so that Kashmiris could visit their relatives across the de facto border in the Pakistan-controlled region of Kashmir. A bookshop opened for the first time in nearly two decades.“Before the storm, there is always a calm,” a Kashmiri woman, Assabah Khan, 34, declared. “The uprising we see now is the latent anger against the Indian state that has erupted again.”Narendra Nath Vohra, the governor of the Indian-controlled Kashmir state, compared life in Srinagar today to darkness at noon.In the last few weeks, tourists all but disappeared. Schools and offices closed. The main city hospital was filled with Kashmiris shot and wounded by Indian security forces.Mehmeet Syed, who only a few months ago could sing her heart out on stage with her five-piece rock band, remained caged in her home, as her city erupted in a series of fiery protests and strikes. On the road leading to the Syed family home, children guarded a homemade roadblock the other day, clutching stones.On Monday, on the edges of an open field where tens of thousands had gathered to vent their anger at Indian rule, Abdul Gani Mir, 62, marveled at a young man who had scaled a chinar tree to plant a green Islamic flag.Mr. Mir said being here filled him with hope. “We succumbed, but I don’t think this generation will,” he said, and then he chuckled. “I wish I were young.” His niece was among 20 unarmed Kashmiri protesters killed by Indian security forces last week, as they set off on a march to Muzaffarabad, in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Sheik Yasir Rouf, 27, said he had never before taken part in a demonstration so large, so intense. He was a child in the early 1990s, when the anti-Indian rebellion was at its peak. “This feeling was always there,” he said. “We are fighting for our one right to be free.” “Sooner or later, this had to be,” insisted his friend, Shahid Rasool, also 27. Mr. Rouf said he had spent 15 days in jail during his senior year in high school, accused of harboring militants. Mr. Rasool was picked up by security forces and interrogated all night; he was 16 years old. The trouble in the valley began two months ago, quite unexpectedly, over 99 acres of state government land that, for decades, had been used by Hindu pilgrims on the route to a Himalayan shrine called Amarnath. In May, the authorities in Indian-controlled Kashmir authorized the panel that runs the pilgrimage site to put up “prefabricated structures” for pilgrims. The order enraged Muslims. With state elections scheduled for this year, some politicians and separatist leaders pounced on the decision and declared it a bid to re-engineer the demography of Kashmir. Hard-line Islamists compared it to the Israeli occupation of Muslim holy lands. The government soon rescinded the order, but nothing, as Governor Vohra pointed out, actually changed — Hindu pilgrims still used the land, and they still came this year in record numbers. Nevertheless, the retraction of the original order enraged people in the Hindu-majority plains of Jammu, which is part of the same state. They, too, began agitating by the tens of thousands. And they, too, were goaded by politicians and hard-line leaders. All told over the past two months, the protests here in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley and counterprotests led by Hindu groups in the plains below, have left a death toll of nearly 40 in clashes with security forces. The two sides remain at each other’s throats. Muslims in the valley allege that Indian troops have been quick to halt their protests, while letting Hindus in the plains carry on their agitation. Hindu leaders in the plains were outraged that the government allowed anti-Indian separatists to march through the valley carrying Pakistani flags. Many Indians regard the rebellious tableau in the valley as an unexpected affront. Kanwal Sibal, a retired diplomat, suggested in a livid column on Tuesday in Mail Today, an English-language newspaper, that unlike China with its Tibet policy, India has never sought to alter Kashmir’s Muslim-majority demography. The latest fury, he suggested, “shows the failure, and perhaps the futility, of efforts to win the hearts and minds of the valley Kashmiris.” Kashmiri public opinion is hardly uniformly anti-Indian, and the pro-Pakistan current is one among many. But distrust runs deep. Rumors travel and harden equally fast. Muslims here complain that Indian security forces roam the streets, and they can recount at least one memory, usually more, of humiliation and fear. “It is a volcano that has erupted,” Shad Salim Akhtar, 54, a doctor, said of the latest agitation. That volcano kept Ms. Syed, the Kashmiri singer, at home. She had a video shoot scheduled for her new solo album; it has been postponed. Her father, Ahmad, a doctor was considering running in the elections this fall, but he is no longer sure. Dr. Syed, 46, said he had just been getting used to the sense of the ordinary returning to his city. The guards at checkpoints were less aggressive than before. He did not worry much about his daughter’s concerts. “Three, four months ago, we thought, ‘It’s all over now, nothing to worry about,’ ” Dr. Syed said. That is all over now, his daughter lamented. “Will that day come when we can move around freely?” she asked. “It is a dream.” Amit Wanchoo, a Kashmiri Hindu and the leader of her band, Imersion, was also mostly staying home, leaving plenty of time to write new songs. One was dedicated to those killed last week. “The sky is saying something, the air is saying something,” the lyrics went. “Where are my people, whom I met here?”