It is summertime in Indian-controlled Kashmir and the streets are roiled by unrest. Young separatist protesters in jeans and bandanas hurl rocks at Indian troops, who respond with tear gas, baton charges and live ammunition.
At least 11 people have died in the past three weeks of street violence, and a round-the-clock curfew is in force. Shops, businesses, schools and government offices are shut. Authorities have postponed college examinations and have blocked text messages on cell phones in an attempt to prevent demonstrators from mobilizing.
It is the third summer in a row that deadly protests have erupted, a symptom of the tensions permeating this Muslim-dominated Himalayan region, which has long chafed under Indian rule and is patrolled by hundreds of thousands of troops.
A two-decade-long Islamic insurgency has waned but popular anger has not. Even moderate Kashmiris hoping for greater autonomy within India, which is predominantly Hindu, have been frustrated by the government.
“The unrest has become a cycle where what people are fighting for is not even acknowledged as a political issue by New Delhi,” said Sheikh Showkat, a law professor at Kashmir University.
There is a long history of separatist movements in Kashmir, which has been divided between archrivals India and Pakistan since 1947. Most were peaceful until 1989, when the bloody armed insurgency erupted, demanding India’s part of the region merge with Pakistan or get independence.
More than 68,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the uprising and subsequent Indian crackdown, and the region remains a tinderbox waiting for a match to light.
The latest street violence erupted after a police probe in June found Indian army soldiers had killed three Kashmiri civilians in a staged gunbattle and then claimed their victims were militants in order to claim a reward. The army responded by suspending two officers.
In an anti-India protest following the incident, a teenager who was reportedly just passing by was killed when he was hit in the head by a tear gas grenade fired by police.
That killing sparked more violent demonstrations and a police crackdown that killed 10 more people, according to police and witness reports.
“Our fight is against Indian occupation and as long as this military occupation continues this place will continue to witness human rights violations,” Masarat Alam, a top separatist politician, told reporters recently. According to police, Alam has gone underground to evade arrest.
In an effort to contain the violence, authorities Wednesday expanded a curfew to most parts of Srinagar, the main city in Indian Kashmir, and the key towns of Anantnag and Baramulla. Thousands of government forces also patrolled the troubled town of Sopore, under curfew for a sixth straight day. Police have arrested about 100 top separatist leaders and activists.
“This is not a simple law and order matter brought about by lack of good governance,” Omar Abdullah, chief minister of Indian Kashmir, said after three people were killed Tuesday in a shooting blamed on troops. “It is a battle of ideologies in which various anti-national forces and vested interests have come together to create trouble.”
India has an estimated 700,000 soldiers in Kashmir, even though police estimate only about 500 armed rebels remain in the fight.
Experts say extreme militarization and absence of movement in peace talks between India and Pakistan over Kashmir have become a constant source of anger among war-weary residents.
“The pervasive presence is that of the military and paramilitary, whose xenophobic and forceful infiltration into every aspect of economic and civic life is palpable,” said Angana Chatterji, an anthropologist at San Francisco’s California Institute of Integral Studies.
The insurgency has largely been replaced by street demonstrations, which gained traction in the summer of 2008, when residents protested the transfer of 100 acres (40 hectares) of land to a Hindu shrine in the Kashmir Himalayas. Public pressure forced the government to revoke the plan, which Kashmiris saw as an attempt to affect a demographic change in the only Muslim-majority region in India.
But the protests soon morphed into some of the biggest demonstrations against Indian rule since the early years of the 1989 uprising, and brought tens of thousands into the streets. Indian authorities launched a harsh crackdown that killed more than 60 protesters and wounded hundreds.
Last summer, protests broke out again after the alleged rape and murder of two young women by men in uniform. A federal investigation later said they weren’t raped and died from drowning.