Eleven people have been killed so far this summer — one, a nine-year old child — in murderous clashes between police and protesters. Polemicists have cast the violence as a new intifada against Indian rule. It isn't, and that makes the killings all the more tragic and deplorable. Kashmir's street war has been overwhelmingly concentrated in the old-town areas of Sopore, Baramulla, and Srinagar. Few of the clashes have involved more than a few hundred people. Home to artisans and traders, the old-towns have been in economic decline for decades, their historic dominance of the region's political life undermined by the emergence of new élites linked to public works contracts, the bureaucracy, and modern entrepreneurship. In recent years, they have become home to large numbers of prospect-less young people. Islamist polemic, the slogans of Kashmiri independence, and the hurled stone are the vocabulary of their inchoate rage.
The riots in Kashmir's old-town areas hold out two distinct challenges: one policing-linked, the other political. First, the death toll has exposed J&K's incapacity to contain the street violence, except through brutal suppression. In some cases, as video footage makes clear, the lives of police personnel were under imminent threat. In others, lethal force appears to have been used because of panic, lapses in planning, and poor training. Instead of working to develop effective, non-lethal crowd control forces of its own, J&K has relied heavily on the Central Reserve Police Force — an overworked organisation called upon to discharge a bewildering array of counter-terrorism, protection, and riot-control duties. The State government has 32,000 armed police personnel to deal with such crises. But to avoid public opprobrium, it has chosen not to take the lead role. As for the political challenge, Kashmir's old-town neighbourhoods have, for historical reasons, resisted the re-institutionalisation of organised politics that has taken place elsewhere in the State. National Conference leaders elected from these areas have ridden to power on low voter turnouts, not popular legitimacy. The power of local leaders of the religious Right, like Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, has been in decline; the opposition People's Democratic Party is focussed on its south Kashmir heartlands. It is no surprise that the protesters have proved immune to calls for restraint from a wide spectrum of leaders, ranging from secessionists, clerics, and political establishmentarians: none of them speaks for them. Kashmir's Islamist patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, has been the principal beneficiary of this void. Politicians cutting across party lines must address the rage that is driving the violence — or they will collectively pay the price.
Keywords: Kashmir violence