India Scrambles for Solutions as Kashmir Boils Over

Amin Masoodi
Srinagar, India
2016-09-08
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160908-injured-1000 A wounded Kashmiri shows his injuries at a hospital in Srinagar after being hit by pellets fired by Indian security forces during a protest, Sept. 6, 2016.
AFP

India is struggling to contain the worst crisis to hit its troubled Kashmir region in 25 years, triggered by a separatist leader’s killing by Indian soldiers two months ago.

Since the crisis broke out in early July, 76 people have been killed and more than 10,000 injured in the surge in violence, according to official figures. Many of the casualties have occurred during street clashes between anti-India demonstrators and security forces, which have fired on the angry crowds with pellet guns, blinding scores in some cases, according to reports.

Even though a similar uprising killed 112 people during a four-month stretch six years ago, it did not generate the kind of anti-Indian sentiment that is being witnessed now, Asrar Khan, a former senior police official in the region, told BenarNews.

“Earlier agitations, such as the one in 2010, were also spearheaded by separatists. But this time, the movement has gone out of the hands of separatists and has become a mass anti-India movement,” said Khan, who was senior superintendent of police in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in the early 1990s, when violence related to the insurgency was at its peak.

More than 70,000 people have been killed in the Himalayan region, claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, since the insurgency began in the late 1980s.

The latest cycle of violence started after Indian forces gunned down Burhan Wani, a top leader of the armed Kashmiri separatist group Hizbul Mujahideen, on July 8.

“The current agitation has spread to almost every town, every village in the region, unlike the previous ones that were limited to a few major towns and were far less violent in nature,” Khan said.

‘No light at the end of it’

The Indian side of Muslim-majority Kashmir, home to about 8 million people, has been in a state of perpetual curfew during the past 60 days – the longest period ever – as confrontations between stone-hurling pro-freedom supporters and Indian armed forces recur almost daily.

On Thursday, at least 40 people were injured in clashes between protestors and government forces in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district.

“In Kashmir, for the first time we are in a tunnel and there is no light at the end of it. And we don’t even know we are in a tunnel,” former Indian Home Secretary Madhav Godbole told news portal Rediff.com in an interview.

“At one stage, it was believed that a PDP-BJP [People’s Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party] coalition will bring the extreme thinking parties together and give a new beginning, but it hasn’t happened,” he said, referring to the state government’s formation through an alliance with India’s nationalist ruling party.

Despite several bids to restore peace in the region, the government has failed to break the logjam.

On Sunday, Home Minister Rajnath Singh led an all-party delegation, comprising members of 20 political parties, to Srinagar in a desperate attempt to end the crisis. The team returned to Delhi without making any breakthrough after separatist leaders turned down the government’s offer to hold talks.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of 26 separatist groups in Kashmir, had told BenarNews on Aug. 25 that they were against a dialogue with New Delhi because they did not see Kashmir as part of India.

“If it really intends to resolve the vexed issue by way of a meaningful dialogue, India must first accept Kashmir as a disputed territory. It should put an end to civilian killings and start the process of demilitarization.

Government sources in New Delhi said the delegation was divided over the issue of talking with separatists.

“While some members felt the government should engage in a dialogue with separatists, who are leading the current agitation, others felt they should be completely isolated. A consensus was not reached,” a source at the Home Ministry told BenarNews.

Yet on Wednesday, the Home Minister said the all-party delegation was united in its belief that a dialogue was the only way forward.

“The members requested the central and state government to take steps for a dialogue with all stake-holders,” according to a resolution adopted after the meeting. The resolution did not refer to any particular stakeholder in Jammu and Kashmir.

Switch to chili guns

Ajai Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management, said it was imperative to end violence in the streets of Kashmir between protesters and security personnel before trying to hold talks.

“A dialogue with stakeholders to find a long-term solution to the Kashmir problem should be held only after the prevailing unrest is addressed. The separatists and those organizing protests should be dealt with sternly in order to restore peace,” Sahni told BenarNews.

But former J&K policeman Khan disagreed, saying the government was partly to blame for the present unruliness because it was still using brute force to quell protests.

“Security forces should exercise maximum restraint when dealing with protestors, [because] civilian killings trigger fresh clashes and pose a grave threat to restoration of peace,” Khan said.

The government has been criticized for ordering security forces to fire “non-lethal” pellets at stone-pelting mobs. During the present cycle of violence many have reportedly been killed by pellet guns, and nearly 200 protestors have been blinded by pellets fired at close range.

While conceding that rubber pellets were not as non-lethal as previously considered, the government last week announced that security forces had been advised to use grenades filled with chili powder as an alternative to pellet guns, and that the latter would be used only in the rarest of rare situations.

“We have passed strict instructions to exercise maximum restraint while dealing with unruly crowds. But when mobs become violent, our security personnel are left with no choice but to use force to disperse them, lest they put their own lives in danger,” Nayeem Akthar, spokesman for the PDP, told BenarNews.

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