|22 August, Srinagar|
Since 21 June, more than 50 people, including the top separatist leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz, have died and hundreds more have been injured in the ongoing turmoil that has gripped Kashmir. In turn, the deaths, largely due to direct firing on unarmed protestors by the local police and India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), have triggered overwhelming anger, mostly among the youth population. Teenagers, in particular, have taken to public agitation, sometimes uncontrollable, staging frenzied demonstrations against India and Indian forces. The sight of a resurrected public mobilisation against Indian rule in Kashmir, and the subsequent use of state power to suppress the protests, has stirred a group of four teenagers – Rahil, Adnan, Sohaib and Rahul – to the extent that they have recently composed a song, “Azadi”, in which they lament this latest ordeal of the people of Kashmir. They have named their band Blood Rocks. When asked what inspired this title, lead singer Rahil responded, “My blood rocked when I saw people being killed mercilessly.”
The current turmoil broke out in mid-June over 99 acres of forestland that the state government had allotted to a Hindu trust for the annual pilgrimage to the holy Amarnath cave, in south Kashmir (see Himal July 2008, “Renewed Kashmiri tinderbox”). Since 1 July, both Kashmir and Jammu have erupted in violence over government decisions regarding the land dispute. When the allotment evoked protests in Srinagar, the order was revoked, which triggered anti-Kashmir demonstrations in Jammu. Following these, the decision was again withdrawn during a pact with representatives from Jammu. A four-member state-government panel held a series of talks with the Amarnath Yatra Sangharsh Samiti, which spearheaded a violent agitation, and both agreed to give the Shrine Board “exclusive” rights to use the piece of land in question. It was also agreed that the Board would use the land temporarily for the yatra period, and would erect makeshift structures to facilitate the pilgrimage.
In recent weeks, however, this pact has provided fresh impetus to agitations in Kashmir, with separatists keen to transform the popular anger on the streets into a full-blown campaign. This has been made easier by the repressive measures taken by the J & K government, which is looking not only to stifle the uprising, but also to pre-empt the future possibility of one. As such, random arrests, torture and other methods of suppression have become the order of the day. Recently, a CRPF contingent, accompanied by the local police, broke into a revered Muslim shrine – the Dastageer Sahib, which houses relics of an 11th-century Sufi saint from Central Asia, who the Kashmiris revere as ‘The Benevolent’. This set off spontaneous protests and an instant shutdown. People in many parts of Kashmir have stepped up demonstrations against CRPF activities, such as barging into their homes, ransacking the interiors, thrashing residents and abusing women.
Given the pattern of law enforcement that has been displayed by security agencies, many fear more protests in upcoming days. “Jammu remained restive for 65 days,” says Yaseen Malik, a separatist leader. “But there the police and security forces appear to be in a friendly match with the protesters. [Here,] the state is behaving like a political party. They are practicing ideology, not principle.” According to Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Kashmir’s chief cleric, while the 99 acres of land is important, he stresses that anger against any issue in Kashmir has always been rooted in the long-pending demand for the right to self-determination. “India is frustrated over the non-violent character of this movement,” Mirwaiz told a congregation at the Jamia Masjid on 5 September. “It has always been maligning us through accusations of ‘terrorism’. Boys are being killed one by one. But this is strengthening our resolve to continue till our goal of freedom is achieved.”
Separatist leaders, including Mirwaiz and Syed Ali Geelani, support the liberalisation of trade and travel between the two parts of Kashmir through the Line of Control (LOC). At the same time, though, they insist that the main objective of the current movement is to achieve basic rights of self-determination, as enshrined in a UN resolution adopted a half-century ago. The Kashmir Coordination Committee, a coalition of trade bodies, civil-society groups and separatist parties that is spearheading the ongoing movement, has once again called for a ‘freedom march’ towards Lal Chowk, the city’s trade hub, on 6 October. This was earlier slated to happen on 25 August, but was obstructed by the state through a strict curfew and a crackdown on separatist leaders. Previously, the authorities had allowed mass mobilisations, including on 16 August, which witnessed a million-plus gathering in Srinagar. The coordination committee has now deferred the Lal Chowk march until the beginning of October due to Ramadan fasting and the subsequent Eid festival.
The latest uprising in Kashmir has cast a shadow over the elections for the J & K Assembly, due in November. The elections have become even more crucial after Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad resigned on 22 July, and governor’s rule was imposed as per the state constitution, following a clash over the land transfer with his ruling ally, Mufti Muhammad Syed. Ever since, the population has been hostile toward the state administration, and a complete poll boycott looks likely if the elections are indeed held. But officials in Srinagar continue to insist that preparations to hold elections before the end of the year are undisturbed.
In order to recreate some political room for the pro-India Kashmiri politicians, hectic activity seems to be underway in New Delhi to open the LOC for trade. In fact, there is a subtle overlap of demands here, such as the revocation of strict laws, a release of prisoners and the opening of lines of communication with Azad Kashmir. Restoration of trade and normal traffic through the Jhelum Valley Road, also known as the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Road, has been a major demand on which near consensus has emerged between the political camps. After deliberations with Pakistan, in April 2005 the Indian government had opened the road to traffic with a fortnightly bus service, but had simultaneously limited passenger traffic to those who had relatives on either side. Political groups, including the People’s Democratic Party, have since been pushing strongly for an opening of the route to free movement.
This demand has now received fresh impetus from the ongoing public movement, which is also espousing an economic cause. In response to the economic blockade against Kashmir, local traders and industrialists have begun to perceive the Jhelum Valley Road as a viable all-weather route compared to the 300-km Srinagar-Jammu Highway, which often remains closed during the wintertime. Recently, a high-level team of officers from New Delhi visited J & K to take stock of work that is underway to construct the necessary infrastructure near the proposed crossing points on the LOC. However, New Delhi and Islamabad have continued to blame each other for not being active enough in agreeing to the proposal, and there has been something of a deadlock over finalisation of the list of commodities to be traded along the Jhelum Valley route. A trade delegation from Azad Kashmir is scheduled to visit Srinagar in November, hopefully to take the matter further by inviting the viewpoints of those on the two sides of the LOC.
Hold-ups such as these have only added to the feeling that grievances from separatist forces are continuing to go unheard and unaddressed, thus leading to further groundswell in their favour. The administration has ordered three major reshuffles in the J & K police due to public anger over excessive use of force, and has spoken favourably about a dialogue with the separatist forces. Nonetheless, the excesses, in the form of mass arrests and storming of houses by security personnel, are widening the gulf between the people and the state.
Amidst fierce public anger against the Indian mainstream and the looming threat of a failed poll exercise, New Delhi has refocused on the restoration of the Jhelum Valley Road. Many believe that in the context of a volatile public mobilisation against Indian rule, opening the route to trade and traffic could be an effective psychological concession, and may help bring back on track the largely stigmatised electoral politics of Kashmir. In the past few weeks, as the Valley’s streets have filled with people shouting both anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans, the mainstream political parties – the National Conference and People’s Democratic Party – have tried to outdo each other in their support of the Kashmir cause. But the swelling popular mood in favour of secessionists is deterring these pro-India political groups from holding public rallies. Even with no trace of a political campaign anywhere across J & K, however, the Election Commission looks hell-bent on conducting the polls. Either way, the most critical worry for New Delhi will be to restrain the younger generation in Kashmir from slipping into secessionist mode.
~ Riyaz Masroor is a journalist based in Srinagar.
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