The Kashmir Valley is in a state of ferment again with anti-India sentiment exploding in violent protests across the restive region.
It was the alleged molestation by an army man in Handwara in north Kashmir that sparked off the current unrest. Angry Kashmiris poured into the streets of Handwara, shouting anti-India slogans and pelting stones at the security forces. The situation escalated when the security forces fired indiscriminately into the crowd, killing three civilians.
Protests spread to other parts of the Valley. Two more civilians were killed and scores injured when police opened fire on protestors elsewhere. Curfew was imposed in Handwara and additional troops were rushed to the Valley to put down the protests.
Adding fuel to the fire was the government’s insensitive and shoddy handling of the molestation allegations. Had it ordered a swift probe by a neutral agency and acted to punish the guilty, it could have de-escalated the crisis.
Instead, a video of the girl that revealed her identity was released. She is seen asserting that she was molested not by soldiers but by two local boys. Few in Kashmir are convinced by the video’s contents. Many believe that the girl blamed local boys under pressure; after all, she and her kin were in police detention when the statement was made.
The sequence of events that unfolded in Handwara and other parts of Kashmir is not new. Every time a molestation, ‘disappearance’ or extra-judicial killing occurs, Kashmiri anger with the Indian state boils over in mass protests that often involve the use of some violence. While political and armed separatists do fan the flames by instigating violence, the state’s resort to disproportionate force, which is aimed at putting a lid on the unrest, has only served to deepen public alienation from India.
Although the Valley is limping back to normalcy, the recent protests have set alarm bells ringing in the Indian security establishment. The unrest comes at a time when India is already concerned over growing public support to the militants.
When the anti-India protests and militancy erupted in Kashmir in 1989-90, it enjoyed mass support. But with the security forces cracking down, the militancy getting criminalized and the violence destroying their lives, livelihoods and social fabric, Kashmiri public support for the militancy waned and by the mid-1990s the worst of the unrest and militancy was over and pro-Pakistan sentiment too declined.
In the two decades since, although Kashmir simmers with discontent, militancy had few takers in the Valley. Even at the height of the stone-pelting protests of 2010, few Kashmiris saw a return to arms as the solution to their grievances. That appears to be changing.
Over the past year or so, militancy is gaining popularity and a new generation of militants has emerged. Unlike the earlier militants, these are educated, well-to-do and tech-savvy. Importantly, they are not wary of revealing their identities on the Internet or glorifying violence.
And a growing number of Kashmiris are impressed.
As in the early 1990s, crowds are showing up at funerals of militants. In one case, residents of at least three villages fought each other for the honor of interring the body of a slain militant in their soil. The militant was a Pakistani.
While it is still too early to infer that militancy has returned to the Valley, the danger looms. Clearly, India failed to build on the opportunities to address Kashmiri grievances that opened up during the recent decades of relative normalcy. Several rounds of elections have been held but successive governments in Kashmir and Delhi have failed the voters. The political roots of the conflict are never addressed.
Importantly, the decision of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to join hands with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to form a coalition government in the state has angered Kashmiris. The BJP has been calling for doing away with Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which confers special status on Jammu and Kashmir. This and its assaults on the rights and lives of Muslims has drawn the ire of Kashmiri Muslims.
The PDP’s support base consists of ‘soft separatists’. With the party leadership’s aligning with the BJP, this section is moving away from the mainstream to the margins.
The recent unrest is worrying as it signals that anger in the Valley is widespread, needing just a spark to set off a conflagration. Kashmiris are aware that the decade of militancy brought them nothing but destruction. Weariness with violence thus remains an important deterrent to the return to arms.
But Kashmir’s youth, especially those born after the militancy subsided, may be more willing to try armed struggle again.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org