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.
Every day brings news of more unarmed protesters killed somewhere in Kashmir. The children of the conflict fight the soldiers with stones during daytime and record their memory at night, using Internet-based social media like Facebook and YouTube both to mobilize within Kashmir and to communicate with the outside world. They are delving deep in the archeology of their political history to establish connections with the past and build an archive of their memory for the future.
An example of this occurred on June 11, when the youth of one Srinagar locality planned a demonstration in memory of the victims of a massacre that had occurred seventeen years earlier, when Indian paramilitary forces had killed twenty-eight unarmed civilians. Authorities locked down the area. During protests that erupted in the adjacent neighborhood, police killed a schoolboy by firing a tear-gas canister directly at his head. The brutality ignited passions across Kashmir, triggering a deadly cycle of protests and retaliatory killings by government forces. That’s when the new, intifada-like uprising for the right to self-determination began in earnest, and when the words "Go India, Go Back" and "We Want Freedom" began to appear on the lanes and shuttered shops all over the region. On September 17, the intensity of the protests forced the government to call out the army and enforce a siege of the populated areas.
Many among the Indian political class have recently started expressing outrage at the killings of unarmed Kashmiris. But in the minds of the Kashmiris who fight the soldiers in their neighborhoods, their future is irreconcilable with that of India. In a population of 10 million, 70,000 civilians have been killed in a span of two decades, stories of widespread torture are common lore, and soldiers are protected by impunity laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The law empowers soldiers to kill any person suspected of trying to commit an offense, to search homes without a warrant and to destroy buildings suspected of harboring militants. Soldiers accused of human rights violations such as extrajudicial killings and rape cannot be prosecuted unless the federal government grants permission, of which not a single instance exists despite hundreds of petitions.
Two decades of military crackdown have transformed Kashmir into a powder keg of bitter memories. Residents often say they are subjected to collective punishment whenever they rise in protest. One protester, a postdoctoral student at the University of Kashmir, showed me a long list of crimes like rape, torture and custodial killings allegedly committed by Indian forces that he distributes among fellow demonstrators. Arguing that justice and Kashmir’s future within India are incompatible, he said, "Can India afford justice in Kashmir? No." Another protester, who said that as a young boy he witnessed two of his siblings killed and his mother molested by troops, told me, "To live honorably in Kashmir means to keep fighting India."
But the range of reasons behind anti-India anger is much wider than the past two decades of conflict. They also emanate from Kashmir’s cultural and civilizational past, quite apart from post-independence attempts by the Indian political class to integrate Kashmir with New Delhi. Before the end of British colonialism, many of Kashmir’s religious, linguistic, cultural and economic influences came from Central Asia and Persia. That part of the world, with which Kashmir suddenly lost connection after the partition of 1947, is still central to the Kashmiri imagination and worldview. Until India’s independence, Kashmiris made frequent journeys for trade and for spiritual gratification to the fabled Central Asian centers of Bukhara, Tashkent, Samarkand and Lhasa. Connections forged over centuries were suddenly snapped and an iron curtain was drawn, obliterating not just Central Asia from the lives of Kashmiris but also places like Pakistani Punjab and Lahore, as well as the part of Kashmir on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control.
The people in Kashmir feel that for sixty-three years they have lived a life of spiritual suffering, political disempowerment and mistrust by the Indian state, and finally military brutality since 1990. This collective sense of deprivation and disconnection with their past, mixed with the recent experience of lethal injustice, has been nudging this people to find their own place in the world. The struggle for an imagined future in Azadi, or freedom, pushed Kashmiris through a major transition in 2008. Unwilling to give up after their armed rebellion was crushed, they discovered the power of peaceful mass protest.
Hundreds of thousands filled the streets, protesting the transfer of a patch of land by the government to a Hindu shrine in the Kashmir Himalayas. People feared it was aimed at bringing about a demographic change in this Muslim-majority region. The deal was revoked, but that upsurge metamorphosed into massive freedom rallies. The relentless protests have forced New Delhi to respond differently, but with little success at ending the killings.
On September 20 New Delhi sent a thirty-member delegation of parliamentarians to Srinagar in an attempt to diffuse the unrest and make an on-the-ground assessment. The group consisted of leaders from a full spectrum of parties, ranging from the political left to the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party as well as the ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, including the powerful federal interior minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram. They are expected to suggest "political concessions" that New Delhi may soon offer Kashmir in the hope of finding a solution. But the separatist leaders declined to meet with the parliamentarians, calling their effort "an attempt to hoodwink Indian public opinion and the international community."
On the eve of the delegation’s three-day visit, three more young men, who had sustained gunshot injuries in previous days, died in hospitals, and a woman was killed by troops when a group of them were taunted by locals while withdrawing for the night from the northern town of Sopore.
While New Delhi awaits the assessment of the visiting lawmakers, Kashmiris have already added another chapter to their unforgiving memory: year 2010 is the "year of killing youth."