In Kashmir, stone throwers face off with Indian security forces
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
Saturday, July 17, 2010
SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR -- One minute, a shaggy-haired 21-year-old is on the Internet, mixing brooding rock music with video footage of young Kashmiris protesting Indian control of this disputed Himalayan region. The next, he's out on the streets wielding a more traditional weapon: the stone.
The latest outbreak of dissent here, dubbed "Kashmir's stone war," marks a shift in the mostly Muslim region's long-running struggle for autonomy. In a post-9/11, globalized world, Pakistan-backed separatists no longer roam the streets of this summer capital with guns. Instead, the heirs to the conflict are styling their discontent after cellphone images of the Palestinian uprising and its stone-throwing youths.
"If we take up arms, the world will call us terrorists. Stone pelting is the only way to fight for our freedom," said Sajid Shah, a.k.a. Lion of Allah, who was editing his videos in hiding Wednesday. "It makes India think. It makes the world think: What's happening in Kashmir? We will get our freedom with the stone."
In the past few weeks, the protests have grown deadly, with at least 15 young people killed when Indian security forces fired into crowds of stone throwers. The new tactic -- which India's Central Reserve Police Force chief, N.K. Tripati, has described as "gunless terrorism" -- is testing India's ability to manage dissent in the region and to protect its image as an aspiring superpower that hopes for a seat on the U.N. Security Council. Many Indians have said that the security forces should find safer methods of controlling teenagers who pelt them with stones.
"Indian forces were caught with their pants down by these stone throwers," said Ajay Sahni, executive director of New Delhi's Institute for Conflict Management. "The killings were pure incompetence. We had all the intelligence that this was being planned. We heard the chatter over the Internet and phones. Despite this, there wasn't an effective response, only a lethal one."
Not all of the victims were demonstrators. Some, like shawl embroiderer Fancy Jan, 25, were caught in crossfire. A stray bullet killed Jan when she was hanging a curtain in her home to block the tear gas. In addition, hundreds of Indian paramilitary troops and Kashmiri police officers have been injured, some with bloody gashes to their foreheads.
Organizing by texts
The cycle of the hurled stone and the bullet fired back grew so deadly that Omar Abdullah, chief minister of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, called last week for the Indian army to be deployed for the first time in more than a decade to assist state police and paramilitary forces. Curfews were imposed. The state even blocked text messages, which were used to organize the stone-throwing.
"For over 20 years, the security forces were conditioned to believe the biggest challenge was militancy," Abdullah said Wednesday. "Now it's youngsters hurling stones that whiz at them at 40 miles an hour. Obviously, the response has to be different."
Many Kashmiris say that Abdullah, India's youngest chief minister, forfeited popular support when he called in the Indian army to quell the protests.
Abdullah said he had no choice. "I sleep well at night," he said. "I would have rather called in the army than lost one more child."
Abdullah said his office is auditing the security forces' equipment and training them to deal with stone-pelting teenagers using more-advanced crowd-control techniques, such as sonic waves or stink bombs. Critics say he made similar promises last year but did not follow through.
"Just having pepper spray or protective gear for forces could have saved lives," said Praveen Swami, an expert on Kashmir who writes a column for the Hindu, a newspaper. "The real issue is the weakness of India's capabilities to handle law-and-order situations."