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RIGHTS-INDIA: Kashmiris See Power in Peaceful Protests

Athar Parvaiz Bhat

SRINAGAR, Sep 3 2008 (IPS) - Firefights between India's armed forces and separatist militants, a feature of life in Jammu and Kashmir state, have now given way to a different type of confrontation – paramilitary troops facing mass protests by peaceful, unarmed demonstrators demanding freedom.

Kashmiris at a peaceful protest demanding freedom from Indian rule.  Credit: Athar Parvaiz Bhatt/IPS

Kashmiris at a peaceful protest demanding freedom from Indian rule. Credit: Athar Parvaiz Bhatt/IPS

Curiously, this non-violent uprising is appearing at a time when political observers were beginning to write the obituary of the long-standing freedom movement of the Kashmiris.

"In the last few years, the common people had started getting disillusioned and the level of anger against India, as also the freedom sentiment, had gone down to a certain extent, especially when compared to the early 1990s when these were at their peak,’’ Gul Wani, who teaches political science at Kashmir University, told IPS.

According to Wani, people had become disenchanted because of the ideological differences among various separatist outfits grouped under the All-Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and neighbouring Pakistan's preoccupation with its own domestic problems. "Since the separatist groups were pulling in different directions, people had become pessimistic about the resolution of the Kashmir issue," explains Wani.

Broadly, groups demanding secession fall into two groups: those demanding an independent Kashmir, and those who advocate merger with Pakistan.

Since the end of British rule over Indian sub-continent in 1947 and its partition into the two sovereign countries of India and Pakistan, this former princely state has been a bone of contention between the two major South Asian neighbours. The two have fought three full-scale wars in efforts to gain complete control over Kashmir. Presently, one-third of the territory is administered by Pakistan and the rest by India.

Pakistan has officially declared its moral, political and diplomatic support for the freedom struggle of Kashmiris. Of late, however, an impression has gained ground that Pakistan is not paying too much heed to the Kashmiri issue.

Kashmiris on the Indian side launched an armed struggle in 1989 to seek independence which has, over the years, resulted in the deaths of more than 68,000 people. The government of India maintains that the armed struggle is backed and funded by Pakistan, which the latter denies.

Many observers believe that the violent struggle helped bring the Kashmir issue to the world's attention. However, after the 9/11 events, violent methods were beginning to look counterproductive and a debate arose within Kashmiri civil society as to whether the armed struggle should be replaced by a non-violent movement.

The current peaceful mass uprising appears to have provided the answer to this debate. It has even impressed Syed Salahudeen who operates from Muzzaffarabad in Pakistani Kashmir and heads the United Jihad Council, a coalition of more than 14 armed groups active on the Indian side. "Since the common people are protesting peacefully in favour of freedom, we are terminating our operations in the civilian areas though our operations will continue in the frontier areas,'' he said in a statement.

Salahudeen's own Hizbul Mujahideen is currently the most prominent organisation supporting the state’s accession to Pakistan.

Mohammad Yasin Malik, chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), an active militant until he renounced violence in 1994, terms the mass uprising a good omen for the Kashmir's freedom struggle.

"It is great to see people protesting in a peaceful manner in favour of the freedom. It thrills me that the freedom sentiment is catching up rapidly within Kashmir,'' Malik told IPS.

The JKLF has alternatively sought independence for Indian Kashmir as well as the accession of the territory to Pakistan. Malik’s own renouncement of violence and his alleged pursuit of an internal settlement with the Indian government led to a split in the JKLF in 1994. A militant faction of the group is now active on the Pakistan side of Kashmir and led by Amanullah Khan.

The younger generation in Kashmir is upbeat about the impact of peaceful protests. Before the nine-day curfew – lifted on Tuesday -was imposed, to stop the massive public rallies, youngsters were prominently seen in the processions, raising slogans in favour of freedom.

"We seek an end to the disputed nature of Kashmir. This will guarantee us our secure future. We wonder why we are not allowed to exercise our right to freedom,'' asserts Hilal Ahmad, a college student.

Hilal’s fellow students share this view. They assert that undemocratic means of stifling the present uprising are not going to work. "I firmly believe that force never serves to suppress a genuine movement. India may have managed to silence these protests for the time being, but they are bound to resurface regardless of the repression,'' affirmed Rayees Ahmad, another college student.

People from among the older generation also say that they are fed up with the uncertainty surrounding the Kashmir issue. "This time around, we would seek a final solution, once and for all; it hardly matters if our business suffers in the process," says Mohammad Sultan who has reopened his bakery shop in the busy commercial area of Lal Chowk, after the nine-day curfew.

At least 39 people were killed in the recent protests and several hundreds injured before the government imposed the curfew which extended over the whole of Kashmir.

What triggered the protests was the allotment of 100 acres of land to the management of a Hindu shrine by the state government, two months ago. The issue led to massive demonstrations by both Hindus and Muslims. Hindus are concentrated in the Jammu region of the state while Muslims dominate the Kashmir valley.

Ordinary people and separatist groups in Muslim-dominated Kashmir opposed the land allotment, suspecting that it was aimed at reducing the ratio of Muslims by settling Hindus from other states of India in the valley.

Following weeks of persistent protests, the government, on Sunday, agreed that Hindu pilgrims will only be allowed temporary use of land near the famed Amarnath cave shrine and that no permanent structures will be built there.

Separatist groups are, however, taking advantage of the renewed public anger. "This is not only the issue of 100 acres of land; our original demand is the demand for freedom… so our struggle for freedom will continue,’’ says JKLF chief Malik.

Malik’s main complaint is that the people of the Kashmir valley and their representatives are not being consulted on a resolution of the Kashmir issue. "The fact remains that India and Pakistan are yet to give Kashmiris the status of direct parties to the dispute. They have started a peace process between themselves, but Kashmiris figure nowhere in that peace process.’’

Wani said the Indian government ‘’initiated a dialogue with some separatist groups in Kashmir, but it never made this dialogue serious and result-oriented. Nothing came out of several rounds of talks and this ultimately strengthened the hawkish voices in the separatist camp’’.

According to Wani the delays created doubts in the minds of common people. ''They felt that the Indian government was simply buying time. That is why we are now seeing people on the streets, seeking a solution to Kashmir issue.’’

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