A few days back I travelled to Batamaloo neighbourhood in Srinagar, the capital city of Indian-controlled Kashmir. Coils of barbed wire blocked the desolate roads; thousands of Indian soldiers patrolled the streets to enforce a strict military curfew. I couldn’t reach the man I wanted to meet and finally managed to speak to him on the phone.
On 2 August Fayaz Rah, a 39-year-old fruit vendor from Batamaloo, had lunch with his wife and three children. Outside, Indian troops enforced the curfew. Yet the children would find a clearing or a courtyard to play cricket or imitate the adults and raise a slogan for Kashmir’s independence from India. His youngest son, eight-year-old Sameer, took two rupees for pocket money from his father and stepped out to join his friends near his uncle’s house.
Young Sameer walked into a lane and impulsively shouted a few slogans for Kashmir’s independence. He didn’t realise a group of Indian paramilitaries was around. They caught the eight-year-old and beat him with bamboo sticks, some blows striking his head. They then threw the boy into a clump of poison ivy bushes, but a crowd gathered. The paramilitaries called a police truck, which drove Sameer to the nearby hospital. Meanwhile, police and paramilitaries teargassed the crowd.
“Someone told me that a child has been killed,” said Fayaz. He called a friend in the local police and mentioned that his son, who had left home wearing a yellow T-shirt, had not returned. His friend arrived at his door with an ambulance. “I saw my boy on the ventilator,” Fayaz sighed. Doctors tried for hours to revive him, but couldn’t save Sameer. “There is no justice in Kashmir,” Fayaz told me. “Now the police claim my son died in a stampede.”
It is getting harder to keep track of the deaths. In recent years, the hot guerrilla war over the region that began in 1990 first gave way to a cold peace, then, in the past two years, waves of mass protests. The summer of 2008 saw the biggest demonstrations for Kashmir’s independence from India in two decades; they were put down by force, with 60 deaths and more than 500 injuries. In the past three months, Indian forces have killed 106 Kashmiri protesters and bystanders, mostly teenagers.
The current fighting broke out as a protest against the killing of a 17-year-old student, Tufail Mattoo, in Srinagar. He was returning home from tuition and was hit by a teargas shell the police fired to disperse a crowd that had gathered to protest at another death. The situation has produced a Palestinian-style intifada in which young boys battle Indian troops with stones, and the soldiers shoot to kill.
India, meanwhile, continues to garrison half a million soldiers in Kashmir, nearly three times the number of American troops in Iraq at the peak of the occupation. India’s half-century-old Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which was extended to Kashmir in 1990, gives troops the legal authority to shoot any person they suspect of being a threat, and guarantees immunity from prosecution. To bring a soldier before a civilian court requires the permission of India’s home ministry; more than 400 such cases are still waiting for it.
In the absence of justice, or any progress in the negotiations between India and Pakistan over the region’s future, despair in Kashmir has grown. Walls all over the region are painted with slogans: We Want Freedom! India, Go Back! Protesters are killed, and with every death more protests follow. The number of injured is believed to have risen to more than 1,000.
Hospitals have been facing a serious shortage of medicines and the impossibility of conducting various medical tests that depend on private pharmacies and medical facilities. Many doctors aren’t able to reach hospitals. Over the weekend Dr Bashir Chapoo, a senior eye surgeon, told me that the troops hadn’t let him travel to his hospital in central Srinagar for more than a week. Seventeen of his patients had pellets stuck in their eyes. I called him yesterday. “I am still stuck at home. Most of my patients have left the hospital now. I have no idea where they are,” Dr Chapoo said. Two had already lost their eyesight.
The military curfew continues with a few hours break once a week. The usual bustle of Kashmiri mornings has been replaced by an eerie silence; my street belongs to stray dogs and chirping birds. The morning papers stopped publishing after the troops attacked the newsagents. It is a world away from the hopeful spring of 2007, when back-channel talks between Indian and Pakistan diplomats – encouraged by Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, and Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president – seemed to be close to bearing fruit. The solution they had agreed on would have resulted in a largely autonomous Kashmir with soft borders between the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled regions, and the gradual demilitarisation of Kashmir. But the talks lost steam when Musharraf lost power, and broke down after the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, orchestrated by Pakistani militants.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq – head of the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, a coalition of separatist groups – championed the peace talks without any results. But now such moderates find themselves marginalised. The influence of the separatist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani has risen; he is now viewed as the most substantial powerbroker in the region. The only lull in the recent protests occurred when he appealed to the protesters to stay home.
After several high-profile meetings last week, Singh’s government rejected even moderate demands such as repealing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act – even though a committee set up by Singh four years ago recommended doing so. Scaling back troops from residential areas wasn’t even discussed.
The Indian government did, however, despatch a delegation of parliamentarians to Kashmir for a fact-finding mission. The group arrived at Geelani’s Srinagar home on Monday afternoon, accompanied by scores of television crews. The Kashmiri leader enumerated his preconditions for peace talks: New Delhi should accept Kashmir as a dispute, free Kashmiri political prisoners, and withdraw its troops. Soldiers guilty of civilian killings must be punished, and their blanket protection withdrawn. India is not willing to concede any of these demands, but the meeting provides at least a sliver of hope that the conversations so close to producing results three years ago might begin again.
What the Singh government does next will be its big test. Various analysts and political figures have suggested unconditional, result-oriented talks with the Kashmiris and a revival of the dialogue with Pakistan. It may well be the only way to save Kashmir – and India itself – from future calamities.
Basharat Peer, the author of Curfewed Night, an account of the Kashmir conflict.