Violence puts Kashmir at a crossroads

Analysts, politicians and civil society groups once more are asking what can be done to resolve the decades-long crisis in Kashmir.

SRINAGAR, INDIA// Analysts, politicians and civil society groups once more are asking what can be done to resolve the decades-long crisis in Kashmir after a fresh wave of bloodshed and civil unrest in recent weeks. Nearly 20 people have been killed by security forces over the past month, most coming in massive, violent protests against Indian rule of Kashmir that have seen demonstrators throw rocks at police and paramilitary forces and set fire to government buildings.

Every other day, thousands of residents have been taking to the streets of Kashmiri towns and cities chanting "We want freedom" and "Go India, go back". Security forces have imposed curfews in several Kashmir towns, pushing 1.5 million people indoors in Srinagar alone. The forces also have been accused of using excessive force and are being monitored by human rights groups. Following the most recent violence on Tuesday, in which security forces shot and killed three protesters and wounded two others, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, rushed back to Srinagar, the state's summer capital, where he had been meeting with his cabinet and senior police officials to discuss the situation.

The governor of Kashmir, meanwhile, flew to New Delhi for "consultations" with the federal government. The trip gave rise to rumours that the Indian government is contemplating removing Mr Abdullah from his position, as he appears unable to control the situation in the restive Himalayan region. But reports emanating from the Indian capital suggested the government is reluctant to dislodge the chief minister, the youngest the state has ever had, and instead increase its political and military backing of him in an effort to pull the state out of the crisis.

Observers have expressed increasing alarm over the current unrest, and Kashmiris appear divided on who is to blame and how best to resolve the situation. "We can't afford violence consuming our young boys on a daily basis. Something ought to be done to stop this bloodshed," said Zarief Ahmed Zarief, a poet and social activist. Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a professor of human rights and international law at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar, said youngsters in Kashmir had few opportunities and thus turned to violence, and he blamed India and the incompetence of Kashmiri politicians.

"The way out is they have to give a sense of achievement to these young boys because no one plunges into violence willingly," Professor Hussain said. "They are compelled to indulge in acts of violence because of New Delhi's stubbornness and the indifference of the local rulers." Muhammad Ashraf, a former bureaucrat and political commentator, agreed, but pointed to the heavy-handedness of the security forces as a major reason for the unrest.

"The basic problem right now in Kashmir is extreme alienation caused by the attitude of security forces. Even though there has been a tremendous change in the militant movement, the attitude of the security forces in dealing with common people has remained unchanged," he said, referring to the dramatic decrease in recent years in the activities of insurgents or militants seeking an end to New Delhi rule in Kashmir.

Mr Zarief said he hoped civil society organisations could help resolve the crisis by putting more pressure on the government to reduce troop numbers, repeal tough emergency laws in the state and take other intiatives to ease tensions. But Hameeda Nayeem, a professor of English literature and head of the Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies, an advocacy group, is sceptical that civil society can do anything to change the situation because, he said, India's policies are the cause of the crisis.

"It would be wasting of time," she said. "[India] long ago declared Kashmir as an enemy territory and its people enemies, and is treating them accordingly." Some analysts criticised the Srinagar government's decision to call upon the army to manage the protests. "Bringing in the army to handle protests, even when there is stone pelting, is the wrong move," said Mr Ashraf, the commentator. "You can't kill a house fly with a sledge hammer. It is going to cause irreparable damage."

Zaffar Ahmed Shah, a prominent Kashmiri lawyer, agreed. "The state is at war with its own people ? by calling the army out, it has used extreme force," he said. "Where else will the state go from there?" Mr Shah offered the government some advice: "Listen to the people, ask them why they are out on the streets in such huge numbers and evaluate what they want." Many Kashmiris have called on the government to speak to militant separatist groups in order to try to reach a compromise, rather than banning or cracking down on them, which only exacerbates tensions.

Mr Abdullah, the chief minister, admitted that the government would eventually have to speak to separatist groups in order to bring the situation under control, but he also said those groups would have to obtain permission from Pakistan first. "Let's face it. Without the necessary nod from across [the border] the separatist leaders will not engage the government of India in a sustained dialogue," Mr Abdullah said in a recent interview.

He is also of the view that after India and Pakistan have resumed talking, Islamabad may allow the separatists to revive the stalled two-way dialogue with New Delhi. "After the two countries have restarted the dialogue, the constituency within the Pakistani establishment, perhaps, will be convinced of the need that Kashmiri separatist leadership and the Indian government should also be allowed to talk," the chief minister said.