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    South Asia
     Aug 6, 2010
Now it's the turn of 'children of the conflict'
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - Mass protests in the Kashmir Valley resumed with heightened fury over the weekend. In the past six days, more than 28 people have been killed in clashes between security forces and protesters, taking the death toll over the past eight weeks to 45.

Although the government has imposed a curfew and strict restrictions on movement in Jammu and Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar, as well as most of the other towns and big villages across the valley, there has been no let-up in the protests. Thousands of men, women and children continue to pour into the streets, refusing to be intimidated by a heavy police


presence and security cordons.

Since 2008, India's northern-most state of Jammu and Kashmir has seen sporadic mass protests. In March, the extrajudicial killing of three men by the army in Kupwara district sparked public rage and unleashed a wave of unrest. The latest violence erupted on June 11, when a 17-year-old student on his way home from school was killed when a teargas shell fired by police ripped open his skull during a protest in Srinagar.

Kashmir is caught in a spiral of violence. Police shooting during demonstrations staged to protest against killings results in more deaths, triggering more protests and more violence. The protesters began with stone-pelting, but the violence has escalated. Last weekend, mobs were attacking not just the police but ambulances and doctors. They set fire to an explosives dump in Srinagar and railway stations in Sopore and Budgam.

A nine-year-old boy was included in Monday's list of fatalities, the youngest to be killed in the recent wave of protests. While police maintain he died in a stampede, locals insist he was beaten to death by the police. India's credibility is so low in the valley that nobody wants to believe Delhi's version of events.

There are striking parallels between the situation today and what happened in 1989-90, in the months before an armed militancy displaced the mass movement: the same defiance of authority, the anti-India sentiment, the pro-Pakistan and pro-azadi (freedom from India and Pakistan) slogans, the sea of protesters on the streets and the participation of women in these demonstrations.

"But the situation today is far more complex," says Ahmed Ali Fayyaz, a Srinagar-based Kashmiri journalist. He says the current lot of youth protesters - the bulk of whom are in the 12-20 year age group - is "more radicalized" than those who participated in the demonstrations two decades ago.

The impact of the Internet and YouTube is fueling anger like never before, Fayyaz says. Back in 1989-90, there was no Kashmiri media. Kashmiris watched Indian government-run television channels, which naturally put out the government view on issues and events. Newspapers published out of New Delhi provided the Indian mainstream perspective.

That has changed with pictures of violence from across the Valley - images of a father shielding his dead son's body and another of a teenager's skull split by a tear gas canister - easily spreading to computers and mobile phones.

Who are these young stone-pelting boys? The media have dubbed them the "children of the conflict". Most were born and brought up during the 1990s - the decade that saw the worst of the militancy in Kashmir. They have grown up amid guns, but for now they have chosen stones to express their anger with the Indian state.

The Indian government's position is that the protests are engineered by the separatists. A few weeks ago, Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram pointed an accusing finger at the Pakistan-based terrorist group, the Lashkar-e-Taiba. On Wednesday, he told parliament that the government "had reliable information that armed militants had mingled with the crowds and fired on the security forces".

Over the past several weeks, the separatist Hurriyat Conference, especially its most hardline and fundamentalist faction - the Hurriyat (Geelani) faction - has been stoking the violence. Led by 84-year-old Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Hurriyat (G) has been issuing a "protest calendar" every week for the past two months. These lay out the plans for the next seven days in which protesters will cripple Srinagar, but also when they will stay indoors and give the city's beleaguered residents time to stock up on provisions, or go to school and hospitals.

Since June, Geelani has been under arrest and in hospital. In his absence, his more radical deputy, the 47-year-old Masarat Alam, has been issuing the calendars. Alam and other hardliners have been justifying the stone-throwing. But Alam's hold over the protesters is also eroding, according to senior Kashmiri police.

Early this week, Jammu and Kashmir's chief minister Omar Abdullah said that the protests were "leaderless". The protesters are not listening to anyone, "not to the police or the civil administration, not to the separatists or even the Pakistan-based militants," observed the police officer.

"Kashmir is in a state of anarchy," said Kashmiri journalist Fayyaz.

The stone-pelting protesters may have been instigated by the separatists initially but they are not willing to follow their script anymore. "Last Sunday was an 'off-day' for protests but thousands were out on the streets," the police officer pointed out. The protests have hurtled out of the separatists' control.

Last week, when the Pakistan-based leader of the United Jihad Council and Hizbul Mujahideen chief, Syed Salahuddin, suggested to protesters that they adopt a more flexible approach, go slow on hartals (shutdowns) and allow people to buy food and let children study, effigies of him were burnt in Sopore, an Islamist stronghold and Hizbul Mujahideen bastion. Five masked men told a hurriedly called press conference in downtown Srinagar that Salahuddin's statement was a "betrayal of the nation".

"Who is he to tell us this? Sitting in PoK [Pakistan-occupied Kashmir], eating chicken supplied by Pakistani agencies, how can he feel our pain, anger and helplessness?" said Abdul Bhat, a friend of the 17-year-old who was killed by a police teargas shell.

Salahuddin quickly retracted his statement and issued a clarification on July 25. Based in Pakistan-administered Kashmir for over 20 years, he is widely regarded in the valley as a mouthpiece for the country's Inter-Services Intelligence agency. The public snub of Salahuddin seems a message to Pakistan - keep your hands off the people's protest.

In 1989-90, many Kashmiris believed that independence was achievable. They believed Pakistan would help them achieve it. But within a few years, they realized that Islamabad wasn't arming their boys to let Kashmir become free, but to become a part of Pakistan. By the end of the decade, many Kashmiris were blaming Pakistan for their misery.

That growing anti-Pakistan sentiment provided space for India to resolve its conflict with the Kashmiri people. But it mistook the deadly calm in the valley for peace, measuring normalcy by the growing tourist arrivals. "The anti-India sentiment in the valley today is unambiguous," asserts Fayyaz.

Everyone seems to be running for cover from the stones and angry words of the "children of conflict" - including Indian and Kashmiri politicians from the ruling party and the opposition, moderate and hardline separatists, and even the militants. Not a single politician has stepped onto the streets to calm the angry mobs or visit hospitals to enquire about the injured.

On Wednesday, an appeal for a halt to the stone-pelting and the violence came from an unexpected quarter - Geelani. Those indulging in stone-pelting, burning offices, railway stations and vehicles "did not belong to the Kashmir movement" and were only causing harm to it, he said. "These violent acts are not helping our cause but inflicting damage to the movement. Our struggle against India should be peaceful." With the ground beneath his group's feet slipping away, Geelani is now struggling to regain his hold over protests he instigated and rage that he had stoked.

For India its strategy of "buying time", doing nothing to resolve the Kashmir conflict, is exploding in its face. Only this time, it will find it harder to extricate itself from the rubble.

"Dealing with the militancy seems easier," the police officer said, almost wistfully. "The militants were heavily armed. We shot them. How do we respond to these stone-pelting kids?"

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

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