SRINAGAR, INDIA // Two teenagers were killed and at least 20 people wounded yesterday in the latest incidence of security forces in Indian Kashmir opening fire on protesters. Tensions are simmering in the disputed Himalayan region after weeks of violence in which the police have been blamed for shooting dead eight people.
Anger has escalated with a cycle of violence in which repeated anti-Indian demonstrations have been suppressed by live ammunition from local police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), India's federal paramilitaries. One of the clashes last week has now sparked a judicial investigation and condemnation of the CRPF as an "unbridled force". Yesterday, live ammunition was fired as thousands of demonstrators in the state capital of Srinagar took to the streets chanting "We want freedom" and "Go India, Go".
The protesters were starting a march toward the town of Sopore, 48km away, where three youths were killed by police bullets during a protest on June 25. That day, huge crowds had taken to the streets after the killing of two suspected militants in a fire fight with security forces. The protesters claimed one of the slain men was a local resident, and called for the bodies for identification and to accord them "proper" Islamic burial rights.
Witnesses said the protest turned violent and demonstrators pelted policemen and CRPF personnel with rocks. Local residents said that was when the CRPF onboard a vehicle opened fire. The Sopore bloodshed came days after another two youths were shot dead by local police and members of the CRPF during similar run-ins in Srinagar. The youths' deaths sparked widespread protests by residents and evoked strong condemnation from opposition parties and human rights groups.
In a bid to try and calm growing public anger, the Jammu and Kashmir state government ordered a judicial probe into last week's killings in Sopore. Syed Bashir-ud-Din, the chairman of the state's human-rights commission, has been appointed to head the probe and has been asked to ascertain the causes of death of Shakeel Ahmad Ganai, 15, and Firdous Ahmad Khan, 22, and determine the persons responsible for their deaths and report back to the government with his findings within one month.
But the move failed to stem the anger of the people. "The state human-rights commission he is heading a toothless tiger," said Pervez Imroz, a lawyer and human-rights activist. "Ask him in how many cases of human-rights violations committed by so-called Indian security forces probed by the commission have its recommendations been accepted or acted upon by the government," he said. The Muslim majority region's chief cleric, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, described the probe as a "political gimmick".
"Such probes have been ordered into hundreds of similar and even worse cases of human-rights abuses earlier but their findings are hardly made public nor do we know if anyone found guilty has been punished," he said. Ali Muhammad Sagar, the state's minister for law and parliamentary affairs, highlighted the scale of the tensions in the Vale of Kashmir by saying: "The latest killings, which could have been avoided, added fuel to the fire."
Mr Sagar also chose to publicly criticise the CRPF for using "excessive and disproportionate" force against the protesters and termed it an "unbridled force". The state's chief minister, Omar Abdullah, said he had been let down by the federal security forces, particularly the CRPF. He assured the people that the government is "concerned, conscious and vigilant" and that no human-rights violations will be tolerated.
At the same time, he vowed that the "perpetrators, instigators and disruptive elements" will be dealt with severely. But Mr Abdullah's assurances apparently fell on death ears. When a third Sopore youth fell to the CRPF bullets on Sunday, the chief minister spoke to India's home minister, P Chidambaram, over the phone to express "serious concern" over the killings of civilians by the country's federal police force.
Mr Abdullah cancelled one official trip and said he was personally monitoring the situation termed as "highly volatile" by the officials. The director general of the CRPF, Vikram Srivastava, rejected criticism of his force as unwarranted. "Our basic position is that we are there to assist state police. An inquiry has been ordered into the incidents of June 24 and 25. The truth will come out," he said in an interview.
Yesterday huge crowds poured out on to the streets in response to the "Sopore Chalo", a call to march issued by various separatist leaders, almost all of whom were unable to attend as they have been arrested in the latest police crackdown or placed under house arrest ahead of the protest. Many in the region fear the current situation in the Kashmir valley, home to decades of political unrest, is reminiscent of the blood-spattered agitation witnessed over the Amarnath shrine land row in summer 2008 when nearly 60 people died in police shootings and clashes.