SRINAGAR: For six weeks, in scenes reminiscent of Palestinian intifadas, hundreds of young Kashmiris like 17-year-old Amjad Khan have taken to the streets to pelt stones at Indian security forces.
Government forces have struggled to contain the outpouring of anger triggered by the killing of a schoolboy by police in early June. Protests began in the main city Srinagar and have spread widely.
The unrest marks a new phase in resistance to Indian rule in the disputed territory, some observers believe, revealing the deep frustration of the new generation in the 12-million-strong mostly Muslim local population.
In the violence, in which security forces are accused of killing 17 young locals, others see a danger of radicalisation in a region that was beginning to emerge from an insurgency that has claimed an estimated 47,000 lives.
“I have taken to stone-throwing to show my anger, my hatred at the present state of affairs,” says the softly spoken Khan (name changed), as he stands in one of Srinagar’s narrow back streets.
The son of a government employee father, who disapproves of his behaviour, Khan is dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt and has his hair gelled in a style familiar from Indian Bollywood films.
He says he is not a particularly devout Muslim and attends Friday prayers only to be able to join the regular protests that take place afterwards, denouncing Indian rule in the territory. Born during the insurgency like most of the under-20 protestors — tech-savvy Internet users who are harnessing Facebook and YouTube to highlight their struggle — he has known nothing but violence and turmoil in Kashmir. “Why should this problem linger on if so many other problems have been resolved?” he asks.
When the subcontinent was divided in 1947, Kashmir’s Hindu leader opted to take his mainly Muslim subjects into Hindu-majority India rather than Pakistan and the two nuclear-armed neighbours have since fought two wars over the territory.
For two decades from 1989, a violent anti-India insurgency raged in Kashmir, making it one of the most dangerous places on the planet in the mid-1990s.
But the intensity of the attacks has waned significantly in recent years, widely attributed to the start of peace talks between India and Pakistan in 2004.
Before the latest wave of unrest, there was talk of major troop withdrawals and revival of the region’s main economic activity, tourism.
Govt gropes for a response
The government in New Delhi has tried to paint the protests as the work of shadowy Pakistani extremists, but many local leaders believe the underlying reason is despair among the young generation about their prospects.
There are over 400,000 unemployed young people across the state and decades of on-off political dialogue about the status of the disputed territory have yielded few rewards and no end to the deadlock.
Some pro-India parties call for autonomy for the region, moderate separatists seek independence and hardliners continue to campaign for a merger with Pakistan. “The single largest factor today is that people don’t see the light at the end of the dark tunnel they were hoping to see,” the state’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, admitted on Indian news channel NDTV earlier this month.
“Until we resolve it politically we will always have problems.”
A wave of street protests, which observers date back to mid-2008 when the state government attempted to transfer a piece of land to a revered Hindu shrine, reveal this frustration. Indian army chief General V K Singh said last month that the battle against anti-India insurgents had been more or less won, but people needed to feel that progress was being made to improve their lives.
“Militarily, we have brought the overall internal security situation in Jammu and Kashmir under control. Now, the need is to handle things politically,” he said.