Tear Gas over Batamaloo

Tear Gas over Batamaloo

Mini Teaser: Angry protests and brutal crackdowns are nothing new to Kashmir. Neither is the intrigue between India and Pakistan. What has changed is Kashmiris' renunciation of violence—and a reawakened desire for autonomy.

by Author(s): Basharat Peer


KASHMIRIS WANTED independence. Instead they became pawns in the India-Pakistan great-power game. They remain victims of this battle today.

In its infancy, the Kashmir freedom movement was fought by a nationalist group known as the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation, funded and supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). India retaliated against this insurgency, imprisoning, torturing and killing hundreds. Soon after, pro-India politicians and prominent Hindus were assassinated by the thousands of angry Kashmiris who had gone to Pakistani strongholds for training. Hindus fled to India.

And yet as the pro-independence movement gained popularity, Pakistan became fearful of the group it had helped to create. That is how the world came to be faced with the violence of Lashkar-e-Taiba, paid for by the ISI, peopled by the poverty-stricken of Punjab, trained to bomb-by-suicide, and tasked not with freeing Kashmir but rather with fostering a pan-Islamic world order.

While Pakistan stoked the terrorist incursion, India continued a remorseless counterinsurgency campaign. It was a military success, but it was accompanied by widespread killings of civilians, torture, arbitrary arrests and abuses of power. And this too came with costs. Torn between the two powers, Kashmiris continued to die. Their dislike for both India and Pakistan grew. Hopes for independence—or at least greater autonomy within India—continued unrequited.

Peace is ever out of reach in this war-torn land. Violence partially declined after 2003 as then-President Pervez Musharraf cut support to the Pakistani militants that dominated the fighting in the disputed region. And since 2004, India and Pakistan have engaged in both official and “back channel” talks about the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. The two countries even came close to forming a framework for a resolution by 2007, but Musharraf lost power in Pakistan, and the agreement foundered. The negotiations were completely derailed by the terrorist attacks—attributed unsurprisingly to Lashkar-e-Taiba—on Mumbai a year later.

Discord rose once again in 2008 as the Kashmir government, led by India’s ruling Congress Party, transferred one hundred acres of land to a trust that manages a Hindu pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave in the mountains of southern Kashmir. The cave, discovered by a Muslim shepherd in the mid-twentieth century, is associated with Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. For over a decade, India’s ever-growing Hindu nationalists have turned an annual pilgrimage into a symbol of Indian hegemony. Hundreds of vehicles carrying the pilgrims would shout aggressive slogans at passersby. The Indian paramilitary soldiers would even paint the walls of private homes with signs welcoming the travelers. “Border security force welcomes the yatris [Hindi for pilgrims]” was written on the outer wall of my grandfather’s house. And it is this land transfer that brought about the protests we now see littered throughout the headlines of major newspapers.

Many Kashmiri Muslims viewed the handover as a sign India was truly ruling their land, and subsuming the country in Hindu doctrine. In June, thousands took to the streets. The Kashmir government revoked the land transfer after five protesters were shot. But the true source of all the anger had been released—it was about freedom from Indian rule. Hundreds of marches followed.


NOW KASHMIR is a story of people waving banners and protesting in the streets. Pakistan, plagued by its own internal fractures, by a battle for control of the state, by an increasingly powerful Taliban and by a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, has turned its attentions elsewhere. The terrorists are silent—for the time being. And the war for Kashmir’s future is now being waged in the political halls of power. Whether India can seize the momentum and forge a peaceful resolution is the question.

For Kashmir, it seems, has made an overwhelming transition from insurgent violence to nonviolent protest. Still, Indian soldiers and police crushed the demonstrations against New Delhi by opening fire, killing as many as fifty protesters and injuring around seven hundred—all of which brought Kashmiris to the polls.

A rather-successful local election, with the highest turnout since 1990, followed in 2008, the people hoping to change the fraught status quo. The National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party vied for power. The National Conference campaigned for an autonomous Kashmir, while the People’s Democratic Party championed autonomy and a soft border with areas under Pakistan’s control. In the end, a new Kashmir government, headed by the National Conference president, Omar Abdullah, a youthful grandson of that postcolonial Kashmir leader Sheikh Abdullah, was formed with support from the Congress Party.

Abdullah junior inherited his grandfather’s pro-India party from his father in the true spirit of a South Asian political dynasty. Indian analysts were euphoric about the young Abdullah; triumphalist proclamations of the end of separatism followed for months. But it was a doomed agenda. Abdullah blundered his way through the job, and a sharp rise in human-rights violations followed. Abdullah, who operates with backing from New Delhi, responded to dissent with force. Inevitably, the Kashmiris rose up in violent protest again. The vicious circle ensued. Tear gas and bullets rained down upon them.

Between early June and late September of this year, Indian forces killed 109 Kashmiri protesters and bystanders, some as young as eight years old. The number of seriously injured is believed to be more than one thousand five hundred. “Here alone we treated around seven hundred patients, mostly with firearm injuries,” Dr. Amin Tabish, the medical superintendent of a premier Srinagar hospital, told me. Twenty-five died inside his hospital.

So though the lethal insurgency is almost over, with the number of deaths dropping from thousands every year to hundreds, India continues to deploy around seven hundred thousand military and paramilitary forces and policemen in Kashmir—a number far higher than General David Petraeus’s recommendation for fighting such battles in the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency manual: twenty troops for one thousand civilians. The ratio between security personnel and civilians in Kashmir is more than three times that number, around seventy to one thousand. The high troop density increases incidences of contact between the civilians and the military, which are mutually hostile, and the results are invariably ugly. A highly controversial Indian law, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which has been in operation for twenty years in Kashmir, gives the troops stationed there the power to shoot any person they suspect of being a threat, while guaranteeing them immunity from prosecution. To try a soldier in a civilian court, India’s Home Ministry has to remove his immunity and grant the Kashmir government permission to prosecute him. “This failure to ensure justice only creates a culture of violence,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, who has been investigating the abuse and effects of the special powers granted to the Indian troops in Kashmir and in some of India’s northeastern states bordering Burma and China. A committee set up in May 2006 by India’s mild-mannered, economist prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and headed by the country’s current vice president, Mohammad Hamid Ansari, has already recommended scrapping these highly unpopular laws. The military resists, and these draconian measures remain on the books.

Early this summer, news came that in April a unit of the Indian Army had lured three Kashmiri laborers with the promise of jobs, taken them to the disputed border with Pakistan, killed them and described them as “terrorists from Pakistan.” A rare police investigation revealed them to be common villagers. After an army inquiry into the killings of the three men, a colonel heading the unit was removed from his post and a major suspended, but they could not be tried in a civilian court of law. As Ganguly describes, “We have seen too many false promises of punishment whenever soldiers are implicated in killing civilians. But when the dust settles, the army obstructs prosecution under the Special Powers Act, and fails to deliver justice.”

The absence of justice, fresh civilian murders renewing the memories of older extrajudicial killings, torture and repression at the hands of Indian forces, and the lack of any meaningful progress in the negotiations between India and Pakistan over the region’s future have all contributed to the despair and rage.


PROTESTS FOLLOW killings and killings follow protests. Kashmir’s doctors have been very busy. Inside a surgical ward at the Institute of Medical Sciences, I met a bright young surgeon, Dr. Babar Zargar. “We barely got any sleep for the past few months. The flow of injured was constant and most of them needed surgeries. At times, our team would work forty-eight hours with a few hour breaks.” I met one of his patients, Tanveer Hussain, a twenty-seven-year-old cell-phone mechanic from the north Kashmir town of Baramulla, who was injured on an early September afternoon. The separatist leaders had been issuing weekly calendars, which marked what days people should protest and what days they should go about their business. Work was on the schedule, and Hussain was at his shop with a few customers, waiting for the errant electricity to return.

Earlier in the day some protesters had raised a green flag which resembled that of Pakistan at the town square where he worked. (Kashmiri separatist leaders have been divided even on what flag to fly in rallies, and several standards ranging from a Kashmiri nationalist group’s PLO-like design to a pro-Pakistan group’s green flag of Islam are used.) A few hours later, Indian soldiers came, took down the flag and trampled on it. “The boys in the market jeered at the soldiers and raised slogans. Somebody threw a stone, and the army fired,” Hussain told me. Eighteen were injured, including Hussain, who had a bullet cut through his thigh and another shatter his left leg below the knee. “Only once the wounds heal, can we say if he will walk straight,” said Dr. Zargar. On a bed adjacent to Hussain was Mudasir Dar, a fourteen-year-old student, from the town of Charar Sharif, an hour and a half from Srinagar, who had been operated upon twice. Doctors had removed his spleen, cut a piece of his stomach out and were preparing for a third surgery to dissect a part of his lungs. He had been hit when the Indian paramilitary troops fired upon protesters in his hometown. “I felt a burning sensation and fell on the road. One of my friends fell beside me. He didn’t survive.” Several other doctors I met reiterated something that Zargar told me, “Many more could have been saved if they had reached here on time.” But the journeys to the hospitals are fraught; vast numbers of ambulances get delayed at check posts during curfews.

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