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Kashmir calm under strict army vigil

Observers say violent protests of the past weeks are sign of simmering anger among youth over failure to determine fate of the disputed region.

The Indian army was deployed in Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital, for the first time in nearly two decades on Wednesday to quell huge anti-India protests that have killed 15 people.
The Indian army was deployed in Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital, for the first time in nearly two decades on Wednesday to quell huge anti-India protests that have killed 15 people.

MUMBAI // A tenuous calm settled over the disputed region of Kashmir after the army was called in on Wednesday, but observers warn that the violence could flare up again unless there is a constructive political dialogue to engage the region's restive youth who mobilised violent anti-India protests in recent weeks.

The army has deployed 17 columns - or 1,700 personnel - in various parts of Srinagar, the state's summer capital. They patrolled the city's empty streets yesterday, clamping a rigid curfew and erecting barricades in strife-torn neighbourhoods to ward off any future protests. This is the first time in nearly two decades that the Indian army - reserved usually for counterinsurgency operations in Kashmir - has been requisitioned to quell civilian unrest.

Palaniappan Chidambaram, India's home minister, insists the deployment is "temporary" and meant only to serve as a "deterrent". "I sincerely hope the army will not be needed there for too long," said Mr Chidambaram, who did not specify how long the curfew would be imposed. "We are watching the situation closely." The latest rash of violence erupted last month after Tufail Ahmad Matoo, a 17-year-old student from Srinagar, was killed in a stone pelting clash with security personnel. The killing triggered weeks of angry clashes in various parts of the Kashmir valley, resulting in over a dozen deaths.

This is not the first time violent protests have gripped the troubled Himalayan region, but observers point out how for the first time Kashmir's young demographic is playing a seismic role in leading anti-India demonstrations. "Unlike in the past, the writ of the state is not being challenged primarily by a popular insurgency or by militant organisations or even by a separatist cartel," Amitabh Mattoo, a professor of international studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, wrote in a column in the Hindustan Times, a national daily.

"Instead, it's the anger of a new generation of young men and women who have grown up in these two decades of conflict, which is translating into resilient protests in many parts of the Kashmir Valley. And tragically, most of those killed over the last weeks have been young people, often in the prime of their life." Though ignited by a spate of killings, the violent clashes led primarily by the youth are a larger expression of their anger, disillusionment and hopelessness over Kashmir's decades-old territorial dispute.

"They are fed up because the political dialogue between India and Pakistan and separatist leaders and New Delhi hasn't made any progress even after two decades," said Sheikh Shaukat Hussain, a professor of law at Kashmir University in Srinagar. "This has resulted in a deep-rooted frustration." Instead of redressing their grievances and coming out with a political package to resolve the dispute, Prof Hussain said, the Indian government is trying to coerce the youth into submission, thus alienating them further. The killings of stone-pelting youth does not help in containing the young crowds, it perpetuates their fury, he said

"That is why violence has spread so viciously in recent weeks around different towns of Kashmir," Prof Hussain said. "At this stage, Kashmir does not need the army's intervention. It needs political intervention. Kashmir has been waiting for it for a long, long time." This young crowd represents a generation of Kashmiris born after 1989, when militancy first flared up in the valley. They have grown up to know India through the prism of "belligerent Indian soldiers, improvised bombs, gun battles, rape, disappearances and torture," said Dr Saleem Iqbal, who heads the surgical emergency ward at the Shri Maharaj Hari Singh hospital in Srinagar.

"They are disillusioned because they have been denied the right to determine their own future," he said. "The government of India is not ready to accept this as a disputed area." The violence, he said, is a sign of the growing frustration with the presence of 700,000 Indian security personnel stationed in the valley. "Whom are they guarding? The government admits there are less than 500 militants in Kashmir," Dr Iqbal said. "We don't call them security personnel, we call them 'uniformed terrorists' for terrorising Kashmiris."

Dr Iqbal broke down sobbing as he described how in recent weeks it had become common to witness bullet-pocked bodies of young stone pelters - "my young brothers" - brought to his hospital for post-mortem examination. "How many security personnel have died in stone-pelting clashes? They are well protected by helmets and body armours," he said. "This is an indiscriminate use of force." The Indian government alleges the stone pelting is instigated by militants, and that many of the stone pelters are on the payroll of Kashmir's separatist leaders.

The separatists vehemently deny the charge. But whether or not that allegation is true, observers contend that killings of stone pelters are flaring up passions, and they ought to stop. "Surely, in the 21st century it should be possible to control protesters, armed only with stones, without having to kill young men and women," Mattoo wrote in his column. "It's not surprising that the average Kashmiri finds it disturbing that while Kashmiri protests lead to deaths, protests during the all-India strike this week against rising fuel prices, for instance, lead to no such violence."

achopra@thenational.ae