Conflict-weary Kashmir Marks 20 Yrs Of Insurgency

13 December 2009
Izhar Wani

Srinagar: In a year of watershed events from Berlin to Tiananmen Square, 1989 also witnessed the birth of one of the world's longest-running separatist insurgencies in Indian Kashmir. Twenty years on, the bitter struggle against Indian rule in the scenic, Muslim-majority Himalayan region continues, even though some groups that took up arms have since chosen to eschew violence. India puts the official death toll at more than 47,000 people, while human rights groups say the number of dead and disappeared is closer to 70,000. While the roots of the problem go back to the Indian sub-continent's gaining of independence and subsequent partition in 1947, the launch of the full-scale insurgency is generally traced to the December 1989 kidnap of the daughter of India's home minister. Rubiaya Sayeed, then a 23-year-old medical intern, was freed on December 13 1989 in exchange for five jailed militants whose release triggered celebrations across the Kashmir valley. It was the police response - a fierce crackdown in which more than 100 people were killed - that prompted separatist-minded Kashmiris to take up arms against the Indian state, though low-key militancy had already been born. Among the militants was Afroz Ahmed, now 42, who said he and many others had been inspired by historic events elsewhere in 1989, particularly the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan. 'The events in Germany and the Russian defeat gave us confidence at that time to take on India,' he told AFP. Ahmed spent two months in a training camp in Pakistan-administered Kashmir before returning to the Indian-controlled section of the divided region to join insurgent operations. He was captured and jailed for five years and now believes that armed struggle was never the solution. 'I don't think insurgency will force a mighty power like India out of Kashmir,' said the father of two. By the mid-1990s, Kashmiri separatist ranks had swelled with foreign 'jihadi' fighters of Arab, Afghan and Pakistani origin, many of whom had fought Afghanistan's Soviet occupation. India has long accused Pakistan of sheltering, training and arming Kashmiri militant groups. Islamabad denies the charge, although it openly extends 'moral support' to the Kashmiri right to self-determination. The nuclear-armed South Asian rivals have fought two wars over Kashmir, which is divided by a UN-monitored Line of Control. Among the most active Kashmiri militant groups is the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed by India for the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks. It was also accused of involvement in an audacious 2001 attack on the parliament in New Delhi, which brought India and Pakistan to the brink of another all-out war. The Kashmir insurgency initially began as an independence movement spearheaded by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). Later, the militant wing was taken over by groups favouring the region's accession to Pakistan. India's response to the growing violence was to pour hundreds of thousands of military and paramilitary troops into the Kashmir valley, a move that alienated many in the majority Muslim community. Human rights groups in Kashmir, as well as monitors like the New York-based Human Rights Watch, have accused the security forces of widespread rights abuses. India says it probes all such claims. Few families have been left untouched by the violence and the dominant mood among many ordinary Kashmiris is one of conflict fatigue. 'We just want peace,' said Haleema Akhter, 62, a retired teacher. 'Violence has brought us nothing but destruction,' Akhter said. 'During the initial years of the militancy, it seemed the goal (of independence) was near but 20 years later it is still nowhere in sight.' Javed Mir, once one of the most wanted JKLF commanders and now a leading separatist politician, rejects the argument that armed struggle has been a total failure. 'It was launched with an aim of highlighting the Kashmir issue internationally. And it has succeeded in doing that,' Mir told AFP. The number of militant attacks dropped sharply after India and Pakistan initiated a peace process in 2004, but senior separatist politicians like Yasin Malik warn of a return to violence if a political solution is not forthcoming. 'Our youth are feeling frustrated. Further delay will push them towards another bloody revolution,' Malik said. The warning is echoed by Tahir Mohiudin, editor of the local Urdu weekly 'Chattan,' who believes the Indian government is fooling itself if it believes the separatist movement will just peter out. 'If the issue keeps lingering on, one can't rule out a return to the peak days of insurgency,' he said. The federal government has said it is willing to open a dialogue with any Kashmiri group that has renounced violence, including those seeking an end to Indian rule. In the meantime, separatist protests, police clashes, tear gas and house searches remain features of life for residents of Indian Kashmir's summer capital Srinagar.