Friday, July 09, 2010

kashmir's web: is a contested region set to explode?

Analysis: Things are getting ugly in one of the world's most dangerous places.

By Jason Overdorf

NEW DELHI, India — With thousands of armed police and paramilitary soldiers patrolling the deserted streets of Kashmir, it's hard — or maybe sad — to say that things are back to normal.

Late Tuesday night, New Delhi deployed the army to quell protests in Kashmir for the first time since 1990, after police bullets allegedly killed three more civilians, bringing the total for the month to 15. By Wednesday, the machinery of the government had regained a tenuous control over the Kashmir valley with a strict curfew that barred all civilian personnel, including the media, from the street.

But hundreds — and in some cases thousands — of people defied orders and went back onto the streets after darkness fell. As soon as the authorities rotated security forces from a pacified area to a problem zone, torch-carrying protesters poured back onto the streets shouting, "India, go back" and "We want freedom." And once again, in the Batmaloo area of Srinagar, police could only disperse demonstrators by firing live ammunition in the air.

On Thursday the curfew was extended, with no end in sight.

Nighttime protests and anti-India slogans shouted from the minarets of mosques harks back to the volatile Kashmir of the militancy plagued 1990s. Facebook and other social networking sites are brimming with outpourings of rage, bordering on hatred for India's security forces, from Kashmiri youth. And the moderate, or pro-India, as they are known locally, political parties in Kashmir, as well as the civil administration, stands marginalized, with People's Democratic Party leader telling a local national television channel, "Mainstream parties will become irrelevant if the situation in Kashmir doesn't change."

"Right now, definitely the mood on the streets is very volatile," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a prominent separatist leader. "The anger is quite high. It's brimming with hatred."

Kashmir has been seething since early June [2], when news surfaced that army officers had allegedly murdered three innocent boys, then claimed they were militants killed during a gun battle near the Line of Control that separates Indian- and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Yet as the anger escalates, New Delhi's only solution has been to counter violence with more violence. And now, with locals taking the streets to demand the curtailing of the draconian powers granted to the army and the gradual demilitarization of Kashmir, all the government can think to do is order the troops out of the barracks and into the streets. The fear of the army — which unlike the police and paramilitary forces may shoot to kill with impunity, thanks to the loathed Armed Forces Special Powers Act — so far has been enough to end the violence. But local observers say that in the long run that fear will stoke, rather than suppress, the anger in Srinagar and the surrounding valley.

"When there's discontent, you bring in the army. When there's more discontent, you give the army more power. But it's a vicious cycle," said Kashmir University's Professor Noor Ahmad Baba.

With as many as 500,000 troops deployed amidst the houses and schools of its towns and villages, Indian-administered Kashmir is one of the most heavily militarized regions in the world. Until 2009, the number of boots on the ground had grown steadily since 1989, when a militant separatist insurgency began with the aid of Pakistan.

But following a decline of violence since 2006, India had been following through on the promises it made to the people on its side of the border and slowly withdrawing troops from the state. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, as many as 30,000 soldiers were pulled out in 2009. New Delhi acknowledged the unofficial end of militancy, and Kashmir was "normalized." Now, observers say, that brief glimmer of hope has been snuffed out.

The situation looks as grim as ever. In a show of power Wednesday, the army conducted a flag march in Srinagar's most volatile areas, deploying bullet- and mine-proof vehicles. Local police allegedly confiscated television cameras and beat up journalists trying to cover the continuing protests. And by all appearances, it looks as though this is how New Delhi hopes to restore order in Kashmir, as the central government continues to insist that the problems in the Srinagar valley are the doings of Pakistan, the paid troublemakers of radical separatist leaders, or just about anybody in the range of a pointing finger. Case in point: Home Secretary G.K. Pillai told a high-level meeting of security officials late Wednesday that the current problems are due to anti-nationals and vested interests, who should be dealt with sternly.

To local Kashmiris, that sentiment guarantees that the efforts will fail. They argue that the army has indeed succeeded in rooting out militancy. But acting sternly has alienated people and created a new set of foes — especially among the generation that grew up during the suppression of the insurgency, today's stone throwers — that India cannot fight with bullets.

"Public protest is rooted in public discontent, and separatist politics is based on that discontent," Baba said. "If not for that, there would be no separatist politics in Kashmir. It's more that the politicians are driven by the situation on the ground than that they are driving the situation."

Indeed, most of Kashmir's separatist leaders have been jailed over the past few weeks, and others, like Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, are under house arrest.

And it is hard to imagine a handful of teenage stone-throwers were able to convince hundreds of doctors and paramedics employed by Srinagar's main tertiary care hospital to take over the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences compound Thursday, shouting anti-India slogans, in protest against the army intervention.

"Maybe they'll continue with their oppressive methods, and it will quiet down for awhile," said Farooq, who is chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of separatist political parties. "But then it will start again. You can't hack at the leaves, you have to get to the roots of the problem."

And there's the rub. To do that, New Delhi would have to admit that Islamabad isn't the only troublemaker in Kashmir.

With Parvaiz Bukhari in Srinagar.

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