This capital city of Indian-controlled Kashmir is now often engulfed in deathly silence, with tangled coils of concertina wire blocking its arteries. Jittery Indian troops in battle gear man the streets in this historically contested Himalayan valley of fabled beauty. Once in a while the silence is broken as armored vehicles whiz past.
Citizens under round-the-clock curfew are locked up inside their homes here, as they are in every town in the valley. For three months, shops, businesses, most government offices and schools have been shut. In a convulsion of anti-India anger, residents—thousands at a time—have defied curfew and harsh restrictions to come out on the streets almost daily, raining stones at everything that symbolizes the state’s authority. They have fought pitched battles with police and paramilitary forces, who have responded with lethal force, killing over a hundred residents in as many days, mostly teenagers and youth.
This summer’s troubles began in May, when soldiers killed three villagers in the frontier area of Kalaroos, near the heavily militarized de facto border, called the Line of Control, which divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. The men were initially branded as "terrorists who had sneaked in" from the Pakistani side, but a rare police investigation subsequently revealed that soldiers had killed the villagers in cold blood.
The incident triggered widespread protests, strengthened by the long local memory of extrajudicial killings, torture and mass repression at the hands of Indian government forces, which for years struggled to put down a bloody insurgency that broke out in 1989. Those same forces now enjoy impunity in these times of the global war on terror. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who visited the region in the aftermath of the incident, came close to condoning the killing of civilians by saying that in a difficult situation, innocent people sometimes "have to suffer." But the incident reminded Kashmiris of hundreds of unmarked graves in the frontier areas. Locals and human rights groups suspect the graves contain bodies of some of the nearly 8,000 civilians who were "disappeared" during the indiscriminately harsh Indian military campaign against the Pakistan-backed Muslim rebels, who unsuccessfully fought to wrest Kashmir from Indian rule.
That rebellion stands largely crushed today. But over half a million Indian troops stationed in camps dotting Kashmir are a constant reminder that the war is far from over. Now the armed militants have been replaced by armies of stone-throwing youth. In the battle of stone versus bullet, the "Gen Next" of Kashmir feel they have a moral advantage over the might of the Indian state. "When I throw stones at soldiers, I know I’m staring death in its face. How else can I fight for justice without being called a terrorist?" a jeans-clad young protester said, declining to give his name, as he peered through holes in his cloth mask during a recent street clash with paramilitaries in Srinagar.
"We’re fighting for an end to Indian occupation, for that day when we can freely decide what kind of future we want for ourselves as a people," Masarat Alam told me. Alam, a Muslim who was educated in a Christian missionary school, is a member of the resistance leadership, which issues rotating protest calendars every week, channeling and encouraging public anger in the hope of winning independence from Indian rule. In the past, separatists were divided along ideological lines, with some advocating Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan and others seeking full independence for the entire divided region from both India and Pakistan. Of late, the resistance leadership has tactically set aside those differences and put up a united front to wrest the region from Indian control.