Protesters, Police Face Off On Streets Of Kashmir

Protesters, Police Face Off On Streets Of Kashmir

14 July 2010
Associated Press
Ravi Nessman

Srinagar: The capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir is seething with rage. Over the past month, crowds of young men demanding independence from India have held mass protests and pounded police with stones. Authorities hit back with rolling curfews, large-scale arrests and a rare deployment by the army into the streets of Srinagar. The violence, which has killed 15 protesters and bystanders, set a tense backdrop for a meeting Thursday between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan, nuclear-armed neighbors that fought two wars over the divided Himalayan region and have been unable to reach agreement over its future. Hopes for the talks were further clouded after the top official in Pakistan-held Kashmir called on thousands of members of banned militant groups Tuesday to drive India out of all of Kashmir. Those inside Kashmir say they have run out of patience waiting for the two countries - who each claim the entire region as its own - to get their peace efforts back on track after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Now, they are taking matters into their own hands. 'People have lost faith,' separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said from his home in Srinagar, where authorities are keeping him under house arrest after he led several street marches. 'The constituency of peace is shrinking day by day.' In the nearly empty alleys and warrens of Srinagar, 'Go Back India' is carved into wooden doors, painted on the streets and written in careful block letters on the walls. Razor wire is uncoiled across roads as paramilitary forces in helmets and padded vests enforce curfew restrictions that have been in place on-and-off since last month. A war between armed insurgents and government forces that began in 1989 and left 68,000 dead has ebbed, with militant violence dropping every year. The new protesters favor marches, sit-ins and rock barrages to challenge the security forces ubiquitous throughout the cities, towns and villages of Indian Kashmir. 'We don't want the world to see us as hooligans carrying guns. We want a peaceful movement, but we are forced to resort to stones,' said Ahmed, a 27-year-old coppersmith, as he drank milky tea in a bare concrete room off an alley. Like all the protesters interviewed, Ahmed declined to give his last name for fear he would be picked up by security forces who have arrested hundreds of people in recent weeks, including the head of Kashmir's Bar Association. Life in the Nowshera neighborhood now follows a daily rhythm. The security forces keep the area locked down during the day and when they withdraw in the evening, the residents come out of their homes and bombard them with stones, said Ahmed. Troops retaliate by smashing windows on their way out, he said. 'The harder they push, the harder we become,' said Shafat, 25, whose brother was disappeared, and presumably killed, in 1991. Outside, a group of men sitting in front of a shop jump up and instinctively run when they hear a car turn the corner, presuming it to be paramilitary troops. Many protest leaders have gone underground, and students Naweed, 21, and Ubaid, 20, were so concerned about being nabbed they sent Associated Press journalists to a series of destinations, where they would call with new directions, to ensure they weren't being followed. The men demanded India immediately withdraw the security forces from the cities and towns, rescind laws giving troops special powers here and release those arrested. 'We just want freedom. That's it,' said Ubaid, as he stood among a group of men showing off their scars from rubber bullets and live rounds fired by security forces in recent years. The men denied Indian accusations that Pakistani militants orchestrated the violence and even paid protesters. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said the protests were probably some combination of militant agitation and spontaneous anger, and he defended the government crackdown as vital to calming the street. 'I had to put a stop to this cycle of violence,' he said, even as he acknowledged only a political solution to the Kashmir issue could bring long-term peace. The demonstrations are becoming an annual ritual in Kashmir. When the snow melts in the spring, tempers flare, and angry residents find plenty of reasons to take to the streets. In 2008, thousands protested the transfer of 100 acres (40 hectares) of land to a Hindu shrine, which the Kashmiris saw as an attempt to force demographic change on the only Muslim-majority region in India. Last summer, reports that two women were raped and murdered by security forces provided the spark. A federal investigation later said they accidentally drowned. Last month, anger boiled over again with even more ferocity when a teenager was killed after being hit in the head by a tear gas grenade fired by police. 'It's the environment of despair, disillusionment, which is largely responsible,' said Mohammed Yusuf Tarigami, a communist lawmaker. The protests have driven out tourists at the height of the season, forced businesses to close in the face of rotating strikes and curfews, and cost a region that was growing ever-more prosperous with the waning of the insurgency billions of rupees (hundreds of millions of dollars). It also wiped out the rare optimism that emerged after the 2008 election that brought Abdullah to power. Many in Srinagar now say they have lost faith in their politicians. For now, the young men in the streets say they remain loyal to Farooq and other separatist leaders, but their anger could make compromise difficult. 'We've told our leaders to accept nothing short of freedom,' said Ahmed. 'The moment they sell out, we will stone them as well.'


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