New Delhi’s reaction may have achieved something years of separatist militancy failed to do: fuse a separatist cause with peaceful mass protests in a way that undermines any negotiated solution to a region claimed by both India and Pakistan. The violence is small in contrast to when at least 47,000 people were killed in clashes involving Indian troops and Muslim militants in the two decades after the 1989 uprising broke out. But a radicalised youth relying on mass protests rather than militant attacks to promote their cause may prove a huge political challenge for the Indian government. “Twenty years ago India told us it was fighting the gun,” said 80-year-old separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, long seen as a marginalised hardliner but now touted as a hero to many Kashmiris for his refusal to negotiate with New Delhi. “They don’t have that argument now.” Anger has always been widespread at hundreds of thousands of Indian troops in Kashmir, one of the world’s most militarised regions. Army powers allowing arrest without trial and raids without warrants infuriated residents. But police killings this year appeared to be a tipping point. The government has sent in federal police of mainly Hindus who do not speak Kashmiri. They are mostly despised by Kashmiris. “People get shot mostly here and above,” said one hospital surgeon, poking the journalist in the stomach. “That is what I call shooting to kill. They are not aiming at the legs.
Schools have been closed since June. Children spend hours closeted in homes. Srinagar’s main mosque has been shut for weeks by Indian forces. Barbed wire checkpoints spring up across the city. Several districts are out of bounds for journalists. But in scores of interviews, Kashmiris appear to support protests, contradicting New Delhi’s assertions that protests are sparked by Pakistan-inspired, stone-throwing trouble makers. Walking through Srinagar under curfew, streets were littered with stones. The silence was occasionally broken by police with automatic rifles menacingly banging batons on lampposts. But several Kashmiris shouted “freedom” at the passing journalists. Soup kitchens have been set up by Muslim volunteer groups as supplies run short. Volunteer teachers have set up schools in make-shift buildings.
Huddled on one alley and nervously eyeing nearby police, several residents recounted how police pelted stones to break their house windows and raided their homes at will. “Everyone feels the same. We just want India out,” said Khan, a 28-year-old shopkeeper. He pointed out a six-year-old boy whose leg was smashed by a police baton. The government says shootings follow attacks by stone throwing protesters who torch buildings and police stations. Authorities say more than 1,000 police have been injured. Officials point out that pro-India Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah won the last state election in 2008 with a turnout of more than 60 percent. But the killing of at least 50 protesters and the wounding of hundreds more, including one child who lost an eye from a marble catapulted by police, has dashed Kashmiris hopes that Abdullah would bring changes. “We then voted for development,” said Khan, who only gave his first name for fear of reprisal. “But nothing happened. When we stop protesting, India forgets about us.”
Many young protesters are now using social networks Facebook and Twitter to organise protests. “I don’t protest on the streets. I protest on Facebook,” said Shahnawaz Syed, a 24 year-old computer sciences post graduate. “I spend curfews sleeping, then Facebook, sleep, then Facebook.” In public Kashmiris say they will protest until they are given independence. But in private while many support protests, they are angry at calls for daily strikes called by separatists. “(Strikes) have only brought misery,” said Muzzafer Ahmad, a teacher. An approaching harvest and the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which started on Wednesday, may see protests peter out, similar to what happened after mass rallies in 2008 over a land row over a Hindu shrine. That may be New Delhi’s strategy – to wear down Kashmiris. But it is not the protesters’ game plan. “We stopped in 2008. That was our mistake. Now we will not stop until freedom,” said Khan.