A Youth’s Death In Kashmir Renews A Familiar Pattern Of Crisis11 July 2010
The New York Times
Srinagar: On June 11, as Tufail Ahmad Mattoo headed home from a tutoring center where he was studying for the medical entrance exam, a tear gas canister fired from close range bashed a hole in his skull. He died almost instantly. That morning Mr. Mattoo, 17, had been simply a student with a rucksack full of books. By day’s end, he was being called a martyr for the disputed region of Kashmir, and the next day, against his family’s will, he was buried in the Martyrs Graveyard of Srinagar. Since then at least 15 Kashmiris have died here in the capital and a few other places, most of them young men killed in encounters with Indian security forces or the Kashmiri police. More than 270 security officers have been injured in confrontations with stone-throwing mobs of youths. The events that have unfolded here over the past month followed a script that has played out every summer for three years. In 2008 dozens of Kashmiris died and everyday life was paralyzed in disputes over land for Hindu pilgrims. Last year protests flared after two young women were found dead by a stream in the town of Shopian. It appeared that they had been raped and killed by security forces, but Indian investigators concluded they had accidentally drowned. This summer, a fresh crisis has emerged, with Mr. Mattoo’s death the catalyst. Since then, stone-throwing mobs have confronted security forces almost daily. A government clampdown, which included several days of strict curfew that ended Sunday and the deployment of the Indian Army on the outskirts of this restive city for the first time in more than a decade, have brought a semblance of calm. But few believe the peace will last. The partition of British India divided Kashmir between India and Pakistan. But both countries, now armed with nuclear weapons, continue to claim the Himalayan region. These days, though, the battle for Kashmir comes from within. Tens of thousands of Indian security officers are deployed here, shielded from scrutiny by special laws, and many angry Kashmiris say they act with impunity, like an occupying force. The political class in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir is deeply divided between squabbling mainstream parties, which favor embracing union with India, and separatists who seek independence and have refused to participate in elections. Many Kashmiris see the elected state government as an impotent puppet of New Delhi, a perception reinforced by its decision last week to call in the Indian government to quell the rising chaos. The region’s economy remains in tatters, and the growing ranks of jobless young men are on the front lines of the stone-throwing mobs. By some measures, Kashmir had been enjoying a season of tranquillity. Militant violence was lower than at any time since a separatist insurgency swept across the region in 1989. Infiltrations from Pakistan had ebbed. Tourists, from India’s growing middle class and from abroad, flocked to the Kashmir Valley. In 2008 Kashmiris voted in record numbers, which many took as a sign that the separatist urge had faded. A new state government led by the fresh-faced scion of Kashmir’s best-known political family took the reins. Hope for a new era was in the air. But Mr. Mattoo’s death and its chaotic aftermath have laid bare Kashmir’s inner turmoil. “The hope which was generated in the elections has turned into despair,” said Mohamad Yousuf Tarigami, who represents the Communist Party of India in the State Assembly. “The current state of affairs reflects the disillusionment and disappointment of the people.” Indeed, for all the talk of Kashmir’s embrace of Indian-style democracy during the 2008 election, it is clear that not all Kashmiris feel that the election solved their problems. Areas where turnout was lowest are those where trouble routinely erupts - the separatist strongholds of Sopore and Baramulla, as well as Srinagar’s tough downtown neighborhoods. So far the state and central governments have not figured out how to integrate those who have rejected electoral democracy and union with India. Omar Abdullah, 40, has been the state’s chief minister, its top elected official, since his party won the most seats in the 2008 election and formed an alliance with the Congress Party. With his youth and family pedigree - his grandfather, Sheik Mohammad Abdullah, was one of the state’s earliest and best-loved political leaders - many here hoped Mr. Abdullah would lead Kashmir from bitter, armed struggle to peaceful prosperity. But it has not turned out that way. His critics call him aloof and not up to the challenge. In an interview, Mr. Abdullah tried to swat away that notion. “Everybody has an opinion on how I should do my job,” he said. “Everyone who has an opinion thinks they can do my job better than me.” Still, he acknowledged, democracy has not delivered everything people hoped it would. “The towns where you are seeing these protests are the areas where people did not come out to vote,” he said. “They are areas where mainstream politics has little or no say.” That would include a neighborhood a few blocks from his house, where residents seethed under curfew restrictions. Friday Prayer, normally offered at one of the city’s big mosques, was held locally instead. “Curfew is imposed just to break the will of the people,” said a young sociology student who gave his name as Sheik. “Kashmir is a simmering volcano. There is a semblance of peace, but it is a fragile and weak peace.” In Maisuma, one of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods, residents were locked down, surrounded by heavily armed police officers, and no one was allowed in or out. On July 6 the police shot Abrar Khan, 16, in the throat, family members said, and the curfew prevented relatives from going to the cemetery to pray over his grave. “He was an innocent boy,” said the victim’s brother, Hilal Ahmed Khan. “The government here has totally failed. They are just murdering the people.” Other residents had equally scathing words for opposition politicians and separatist groups, which have jockeyed to take advantage of the current chaos. When Mr. Mattoo died, his parents wanted to bury him in the family graveyard. But an angry mob, led by separatist activists, had other ideas. “They said, ‘This is your son, but he belongs to us,’ ” said Rafiq Bazaz, a neighbor and lawyer who is representing the family. The boy’s father, Mohamed Ashraf Mattoo, said he tried to reason with the separatists, but they would not budge. He said he felt betrayed. He has been trying without success to lodge a criminal case against the officers who fired the tear gas canister at his son. Political leaders simply want to exploit the youth’s death, he said. “To them it is a comedy,” Mr. Mattoo said. “But my son was murdered in cold blood.” Hari Kumar contributed reporting. Saimah Khwaja contributed research from New Delhi.