Peaceful Protests In Kashmir Alter Equation for India

Troops check the papers of a pregnant woman, second from left, being taken to a hospital during the curfew imposed in Srinagar to block a separatist protest.
Troops check the papers of a pregnant woman, second from left, being taken to a hospital during the curfew imposed in Srinagar to block a separatist protest. (By Dar Yasin -- Associated Press)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 28, 2008

SRINAGAR, India -- Inside dozens of cramped kitchens in this Kashmiri city on Saturday, mothers and daughters prepared to make packets of rice for the hundreds of thousands expected at a sit-in two days later. Outside, their sons and brothers collected change from motorists to buy water and juice.

Drumbeats echoed through the Kashmir Valley as college students chanted "Azadi," or freedom. In middle-class neighborhoods, Internet-savvy students blogged about their views and posted videos of the preparations on YouTube.

But early Sunday, Indian security forces blanketed the region, preventing demonstrators from reaching the center of Srinagar, summer capital of Kashmir. Authorities announced an indefinite curfew, blocked Internet access and arrested three prominent Muslim separatist leaders. At least 15 journalists were beaten.

Despite the government's use of force, many Muslims in Indian-controlled Kashmir seem determined to find peaceful ways to voice their separatist aspirations. The slogans of the fighting in the 1990s, such as "I'm going to Pakistan to get an AK-47," have disappeared as the nonviolent movement flourishes, especially among the young.

"For the young generation, it's our moment now," said Malik Sajad, a 20-year-old political cartoonist for the Greater Kashmir newspaper who was raised during the war. "Nobody here saw a childhood. We were always kept indoors. But we don't believe that the solution is in the gun. Now we want to show the world that Kashmiris deserve peace."

The unrest this summer in Kashmir has left nearly 40 people dead, all unarmed protesters, and more than 600 injured in the biggest demonstrations since an uprising against Indian rule by the region's Muslim majority broke out in 1989. On Wednesday, troops fired on protesters in two towns outside Srinagar, killing two people and injuring more than a dozen.

Political analysts and human rights activists say the Indian government has failed to adjust its strategy to deal with a separatist movement committed to nonviolence. Some Indian political leaders, even those who disagree with the push for Kashmir's independence, are beginning to wonder whether India's democracy is mature enough to handle such widespread but peaceful dissent.

"India calls itself the world's largest functioning democracy. But if we are really a democracy, can't we let people express their dissent?" asked Omar Abdullah, a Muslim member of India's Parliament and president of the National Conference, a mainstream political party in Kashmir. "In every other part of the country, police or army fire tear gas or rubber bullets during agitations. Why do they shoot first and ask questions later in Kashmir?"

This scenic valley has long been the battleground between Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, with each country claiming Kashmir soon after India's partition in 1947. The two nuclear-armed countries have waged two wars over Kashmir, and Indian security forces and separatist fighters skirmish almost daily. Fighting has left up to 77,000 dead since the early 1990s, according to human rights groups.

The current uproar began nearly two months ago over a land transfer that would have given nearly 100 acres of forest to a trust that runs a Hindu shrine. After a month of street protests by Muslims, the state government revoked the land grant. That sparked weeks of counterdemonstrations by Hindus in Jammu, a predominantly Hindu region of the state. Hindu protesters blockaded roads leading out of Kashmir, economically suffocating thousands of Kashmiri farmers during the peak of apple harvest.

The issue has moved beyond the land deal for Kashmir's Muslims, igniting a people's movement calling for self-rule.

The movement is "purely indigenous, purely Kashmiri," Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, one of the arrested separatist leaders, said in an interview before he was detained. "Even we were surprised by the force of it."

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