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Indian Authorities Struggle to Control Widening Kashmir Protests

  • Anjana Pasricha

Undeterred by strict curfews, thousands of residents pour into streets across Kashmir valley, chanting anti-India slogans

In Indian Kashmir, authorities are struggling to control spiraling street protests, which have led to the death of more than 45 people in the past six weeks. It is the worst violence in two years.

Undeterred by strict curfews, thousands of residents have been pouring into the streets across the Kashmir valley in recent weeks, chanting anti-India slogans.

The marches erupted to protest the death of a young man who was hit by a tear gas shell in June. Efforts to quell the demonstrations have only fed the violence, as clashes between heavily armed security personnel and young people hurling stones have led to more deaths, and more protests.

The protesters target police stations and security bunkers. They have burned police vehicles, attacked rail stations and other government buildings.

The violence has jolted Indian authorities, who were optimistic that the relative calm in Kashmir in recent years signaled the end of a separatist insurgency that wracked the region in the 1990s.

Political analysts say there is a difference between then and now. While the violence in the 1990s was stoked by Pakistan-based Islamic militant groups, this time the protests are largely spontaneous local gatherings.

Youthful rage

Amitabh Mattoo is professor of disarmament studies at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. He says what is visible on the streets of Kashmir is the rage of young people who grew up during the conflict, and who do not see enough opportunity.

"You have a generation of young people who have already witnessed 20 years of conflict, violence, often been sequestered in their homes, faced harassment, not seeing any light at the end of the tunnel…. All this is buried in a sense of Kashmiri victimhood, a sense of Kashmiri deprivation, a sense that justice has not been done to them either politically or economically," says Mattoo.

The escalating protests have prompted the government to pour thousands more troops into a region that is already heavily militarized.

Shoot at sight orders have been issued to control the volatile situation.

But the presence of more security forces only stokes the anger.

Jammu and Kashmir's chief minister, Omar Abdullah, took power 18 months ago pledging to reduce the size of the military in the state. He says more security forces had to be deployed to restore law and order.

"Unfortunately, as much as one wishes not to have to resort to the use of force, when people take it upon themselves to take the law into their own hands, there are consequences to such decisions, and often times those consequences are serious and tragic," says Abdullah.

Those tragic consequences have led to the deaths of more than a score of young people, many of them the result of gun fire by the security forces. Hundreds of security personnel have been wounded.

Lack of training

Amitabh Mattoo says the situation has deteriorated because the security forces are not trained to handle civilian protests.

"Unfortunately the police in Jammu and Kashmir, including paramilitary forces, have really for last 20 years been forces which have countered an insurgency, countered a militancy," Mattoo adds. "And they do not know quite how to deal with protests that are by almost unarmed civilians or armed with just rocks and stones…. Certainly in the 21st century you have to ensure that people who are not armed with guns are not killed because of their protests."

Both the state and federal government have appealed to the demonstrators to end the protests and break the cycle of violence. A prominent separatist leader in the state, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, has also called on people to hold only peaceful protests.

Indian leaders promise to address the grievances of the demonstrators once the violence ends. In parliament this week, Home Minister P. Chidambaram said the government will initiate a political process in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

"We recognize that the issues concerning Jammu and Kashmir are issues concerning our own people, and have to be addressed through the political process and through a dialogue with all sections of people in Jammu and Kashmir," said Home Minister P. Chidambaram.

Skepticism remains

But in Kashmir, there is skepticism about those promises. Kashmir has long demanded more autonomy, more development and the withdrawal of security forces from the region – but has seen little progress on those requests for decades.

The Himalayan region is divided between India and Pakistan, and lies at the heart of a bitter dispute between them.