On the streets of this political hotspot, chucking rocks at the police is the most cherished form of free speech.
By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
Published: August 3, 2009 06:43 ET
SRINAGAR, India — In Srinagar's Lal Chowk, or “red corner,” a hotbed of social unrest in a city that many residents believe to be occupied by a hostile Indian military, 26-year-old “Mohammad” is primed for the next call to action.
A handsome, muscular youth with a beard that would pass muster in Kabul and incongruously gelled hair, he has been a stone pelter — what locals here call the young men who engage in rock-chunking skirmishes with the police and security forces nearly every Friday — since he was 15 years old.
“I saw so many young boys had been killed by the security forces, so I said, 'Let me join this protest also,'” Mohammad says.
The protests that Mohammad — who did not want to reveal his real name for fear of retribution — is talking about have become part of daily life in Srinagar, the center of political life in the Indian part of Kashmir. Marches and the inevitable skirmishes that follow them are so common that the shopkeepers in Lal Chowk have grown accustomed to a three- or four-day work week. And stone pelting has become so inseparable from political demonstrations that the police themselves carry slingshots for firing back. The government even employs a special brigade of street cleaners to make sure that the pavement is cleared of ammunition.
To be sure, Kashmir is a state still reeling under insurgency, where militants strike at the government and melt back into the forest, and these angry, habitual protesters tell only their side of the story. But a talk with the proverbial man on the street shows that there's more to Srinagar's stone battles than simple hooliganism.
Despite India's claims to have won the hearts and minds of Kashmiris since the armed rebellion by militant separatists that raged from 1989 to 2003 declined to a simmer, the anger over what locals term the Indian occupation — and hatred for the police and the army — still run hot and deep.
“I became a stone thrower in 2004,” says 24-year-old Imran (also using a pseudonym). Dressed in a white Oxford-style shirt, he looks more like a middle class college student than a street thug. “That day, the troops had pulled some women out of their houses in my neighborhood and beat them up. So when the boys came out onto the streets, I joined them.” Since then, he's only grown more committed. “A boy I know is in a coma because he was hit in the head by a teargas shell,” he says.
From Delhi, the complex mire that is called “the Kashmir conflict” looks very different. The days when newspapers chastised the Indian army for human rights abuses and cataloged the long roster of “disappeared persons” are over. Today those reports have been replaced by repeated claims that “peace has returned to the valley,” premature announcements that Kashmir tourism is on the verge of bouncing back, and patriotic paeans to the ordinary soldier. Last year's election, in which voter turnout was high for the first time in many years, was also interpreted as a sign that the people were ready to accept India's dominion.
On the ground, though, Kashmir looks and sounds more like a territory already under occupation than one besieged by a foreign power. For one thing, the Indian army — some 600,000 soldiers, nearly one soldier for every ten civilians — is everywhere, not just on the border with Pakistan. For another, nobody here considers India's troops to be heroes. “If you talk to the people,” said Sajaad Hussain, an activist who heads an NGO called the J&K Research Development Trust, “You'll find 80 percent want independence. Maybe 20 percent want to go with Pakistan. Nobody is for India.”
That's likely an exaggeration. But in my brief wanderings, I wasn't able to turn up a single person who had good things to say about the Indian government. Almost everyone said they wanted Kashmir to be independent. Some of the more practical Kashmiris demanded autonomy — both political and economic — since that is a measure India has at least declared itself willing to consider. And others, still more jaded, simply hoped for demilitarization. This was not at all what I had expected. But in some ways, it made perfect sense.
For many years, watchdog groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the Indian army for human rights violations in Kashmir, where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act gives the military the right to arrest civilians, seize property and shoot to kill and the Public Safety Act allows security forces to detain suspects for as long as two years without any sanction from the court.
In Srinagar, the security presence is unmistakable. Armed soldiers direct traffic at intersections. Flak-jacketed mine sweeping units patrol the roadside with sniffer dogs. Bunkers built from sandbags and razor wire blanket the city at strategic corners. And the stone pelters of Lal Chowk say they abuse these powers — storming into homes, beating protesters, and threatening activists with arbitrary detention under the Public Safety Act — to crush independence activists' freedom of expression. From that enforced silence, they say, comes the stone.
For 45 days prior to my visit, Kashmir had been rocked by protests over the alleged rape and murder of two young women from Shopian, a town located about 50 kilometers from Srinagar. Initially, local police and government officials, including the state's fresh-faced chief minister, Omar Abdullah, dismissed the case as an ordinary drowning. But the people of Shopian alleged that the two women had been raped and murdered — which was later confirmed after the protests forced the administration to conduct an autopsy — and claimed that the police forces had conspired to cover up the crime. After a month and a half of protests that stopped all economic activity in the area, four police officials were arrested for allegedly suppressing evidence.
Nothing has been proven in the Shopian case yet. “There have been some unfortunate incidents in the past, in some cases action was taken promptly and in one or two cases there is a perception of avoidable delay,” Home Minister P. Chidambaram has told the press. “Our intentions are good and there will be proper action. The state government will to go through investigations and punish the guilty.”
But for the disgusted local populace, no further investigation is necessary. Over the 20-odd years since militancy began, during which the army and police have enjoyed almost absolute power in Kashmir, these kinds of allegations are so common, one local resident told me, that for every one that makes news there are another dozen that never make national headlines. “Even the Shopian story took a week to come into the national papers,” explains Parvaiz Bukhari, a local journalist.
All of the young men I interviewed say that police officers have come to their homes and threatened to arrest them under the public safety act, under which alleged offenders can be jailed for as long as two years without formal charges.
“We say, 'Give us freedom,' and they say, 'You are a terrorist.'” said Aftab, another youth. “But we have no guns. Only stones.”