Understanding Kashmir's stone pelters

Protestors throw stone towards Policemen in Srinagar on 29, June 2010. Curfew was imposed in srinagar Jammu and Kashmir's Sopore and Baramulla towns and vehicular traffic was restricted in old city areas of summer capital Srinagar on Tuesday, a day after two youths were killed in widespread violence.   | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

As tensions escalate in Srinagar between angry mobs led by stone pelting teenagers and the security forces, there is a real fear that the situation in Kashmir is fast spinning out of control. Heartrending spectacles of teenage boys defiantly hurling rocks at the police and paramilitary personnel and of mothers weeping besides the bodies of loved ones killed in the indiscriminate firing by the security forces, playing out daily on television screens nationwide, have jolted us out of our collective complacence as regards Kashmir.

Since end-April, quiet rage has been building up in the Valley. It has taken several weeks to explode into full scale violence. That is why it is all the more inexplicable why there has been an inertia and a curious passivity in the responses of the Centre and the Omar Abdullah administration to the events as they have been building up these last two months.

While stone pelting has become a routine feature of street protests in Srinagar since the summer of 2008, it had revived with particular intensity after April, when three youths were alleged to have been killed in a fake encounter in Machhil. The accidental death of a schoolboy, Tufail Mattoo, as a result of teargas shelling on June 11 was the apparent flashpoint setting the Valley afire as mass protests erupted all over. Waves of stone pelting protesters descended on the streets of Srinagar, defying curfew orders. As security forces retaliated by firing on these teenagers armed only with rocks, those killed in the firing were immediately appropriated and anointed as shaheed or martyrs to the separatist cause, thereby infusing fresh dynamism into the separatist agitation.

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah in his press conference in New Delhi on Monday appeared to be at pains to balance the two imperatives of the situation he is now confronted with. He stressed that the cycle of violence would have to be broken and was clear that law-breakers would have to face the consequences. At the same time, the Chief Minister was careful to underscore that the problem of Kashmir was “a political one” and the state needed a “political package”. But with the ground situation worsening by the day, it may be a case of “too little too late” if Mr. Abdullah is seen as relying primarily on a law and order approach to the protests instead of moving swiftly to address what is essentially a crisis of confidence in the political system.

Yet it is also clear that alarmist descriptions of the street protests in Srinagar as the beginning of an intifada as in Palestine protesting Israeli rule or a new tehreek (movement) akin to the movement of the early ‘90s when the movement for self determination began in the Valley, do not convey the true picture of what is happening in Srinagar today. From many accounts, the situation in Kashmir is manifestly retrievable.

According to experienced observers such as Wajahat Habibullah, the street protests today have very little of the sting of the protests of the ‘90s which had a strong undercurrent of intense anti-India sentiment. Today's protesters might shout anti-India slogans such as azadi, but their anger is specifically directed at the security forces in the context of the brutal killings of innocent boys. Unlike the ‘90s, the street protests are spontaneous gatherings reacting to events. If this latest manifestation of popular outrage is suppressed by force, there is a danger that these protests will become currents merging in the larger separatist movement.

The protesters on the streets, apart from the teenagers, are educated doctors and MBAs, frustrated at the lack of employment and economic opportunities. It is not hard to see where the frustration of the educated Kashmiri youth comes from. On the one hand, they are told that they are Indian citizens but they are shut out of the narrative of India as an emerging economic power. With mobile phones and internet communication being restricted, their sense of participation in the larger Indian discourse is sharply reduced.

Film maker Sanjay Kak has pointed out in a perceptive analysis in the August issue of the South Asian journal Himal that Kashmir's new generation of protesters are “children of the tehreek, born and brought up in the turmoil of the last two decades”. They “have not and probably will not become armed mujahedeen”. Yet by adroit use of social media such as Facebook, as Kak has observed, the educated youth of Kashmir are setting up new sites and new ways of confronting the Indian state which needs far greater ingenuity in dealing with the current situation.

It is not as though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh does not have the requisite ingenuity and experience to deal with this present crisis. In his first term as Prime Minister, he had held three Round Tables on the issue in 2006 and 2007. Five working groups which were set up as a result of the round table initiative, including one on centre-state relations, have presented their reports. These reports might not have been particularly imaginative in their potential but signalled the government's willingness to address the concerns of the average Kashmiri, alienated by decades of New Delhi's indifference.

Dr. Singh, who visited Srinagar in early June, has held back from picking up the threads of his earlier parleys with the parties and leaders of the Valley, presumably to allow the newly elected Omar Abdullah state administration the political space to formulate its own policies. In retrospect, to have allowed the momentum to peter out of the peace process that had been set in motion during Dr. Singh's first term might have been a costly mistake. New Delhi should have underlined that its commitment to the pursuit of a political solution remained intact regardless of the change of regime in Srinagar.

The earlier power sharing arrangement that the Congress had with the PDP when it won the Assembly elections in 2002 had enabled the Manmohan Singh dispensation after 2004 to seize the high ground on Kashmir. The perception that New Delhi was willing to reach out to the separatists in the Hurriyat and was simultaneously restarting talks with Pakistan to resolve the long standing dispute over Kashmir's status had brightened the mood in the Valley considerably.

The PDP while still being seen as a party owing substantively to its connections with Delhi, by asserting its relatively local roots and acknowledging the serious deprivations arising from the State's alienation, had appeared to gain credibility and salience. The PDP-Congress coalition made some headway in its launching of a reconciliatory process in the Valley, thereby undercutting into the base of the separatist agitation.

But in recent years, the series of opportunistic moves on the Amarnath yatra and the Shopian episode designed to mobilise communal and separatist sentiments have damaged the PDP's image as a responsible interlocutor. Thus if the National Conference carries the burden of a daunting historical baggage, the PDP stands considerably discredited by its dalliance with separatism.

Yet both these parties at heart recognise that it is essential to keep Kashmir anchored to the Indian union, albeit with loosened ties. It is their duty at this historically crucial moment to step back from the brinkmanship that is a perennial feature of their competitive politics and work together to find a solution in the state's and the national interest.

The reality is that these parties are yielding critical space to Islamist fundamentalist groups such as the Tehreek-i-Hurriyat and the Duktaran-e-Millat. It is not too late for the mainstream parties to reach out to the moderate elements of the Hurriyat such as Mirwaiz Moulvi Farooq and Yasin Malik, co-opting them in the project of bringing peace back to the streets of Srinagar.

Otherwise they would only be making it easier for the Islamist separatists to take control of this youth-driven agitation, described by the Chief Minister as a “leaderless” protest, and turn it into a deadlier force, more aggressively hostile to the Indian union. Now is the time for the Manmohan Singh government to work with the Omar Abdullah administration and other political forces such as the PDP and the Hurriyat on a framework for autonomy for the State. The second imperative for the Prime Minister is to make clear to the nation that a resumption of the composite dialogue with Pakistan on the gamut of issues including Kashmir is inevitable and unavoidable.

The moral authority of India's actions in the Kashmir valley will be strengthened by a demonstrable willingness to work with Pakistan to find a permanent solution to the dispute over its status. It will help in large measure to heal the wounds and the angst of the Kashmiri people who feel they are hostages to a larger geopolitical wrangling.

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