Having suffered a severe beating, Farooq Dar was tied up on a spare tyre attached to the front bumper of an armoured jeep. Indian soldiers claimed he had been throwing stones. Mr Dar was driven in agony through villages south of Srinagar, the largest city in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. The soldiers reckoned the sight of him would deter others from throwing stones at their patrol.
Footage of Mr Dars ordeal on April 9th circulated widely online, fuelling anger among inhabitants of the Kashmir valley, the Muslim-dominated part of the state to which Srinagar belongs (see map). The soldiers had been deployed to prevent unrest during a by-election that was held around the city for the national parliament. So bitter is the enmity felt by many Kashmiris in the valley towards the Indian government that only 7% of eligible voters cast ballots. Mr Dar, a weaver, says he was one of the few who did and that he did not throw anything at soldiers.
The Indian government is fumbling in so far as it is trying to tame a rebellious mood that has swept the valley in recent months. In late April it tried to win respite by imposing a month-long block on social media and mobile-phone data services (useful for uploading videos). On May 22nd, as the month reached its end, the army fanned the flames by announcing an award for the officer who had tied Mr Dar to the jeep. The commendation was not explicitly for that act, but for sustained efforts in counter-insurgency operations. Kashmiris saw this as another insult by a Hindu-led government in Delhi, which most of them regard as hostile to their religion and from which many would like independence. As if to confirm their view, Indian television called the officer a hero for using Mr Dar as a human shield.
The recent unrest has been of a different kind from the insurgency that previously plagued the state. In the 1990s and 2000s Pakistan, which like India claims all of Kashmir north and south of the line of control between the two countries, sent in armed jihadists to aid their fellow Muslims. India responded with a brutal campaign to pacify its only Muslim-majority state. Fighting left some 40,000 dead, by conservative estimates. Skirmishing across the line continues to this day, but in the valley guerrilla warfare has abated. Since last July the unrest has involved hundreds of protests, triggered by the killing of a guerrilla leader by security forces. In April, after a clash between soldiers and students, the unrest spread to campuses. Now many of the protesters are middle-class, with uniforms and satchels.
The central government has compounded the problem by refusing to differentiate between the new type of demonstrator and the guerrillas. It has responded to protests with extreme violence: last summer and autumn security forces dispersed unruly crowds by firing shotguns at them, blinding or killing dozens of people.
The central government has compounded the problem by refusing to differentiate between the new type of demonstrator and the guerrillas. It has responded to protests with extreme violence: last summer and autumn security forces dispersed unruly crowds by firing shotguns at them, blinding or killing dozens of people. More recently they have refrained from using such weapons, but they have revived aggressive searches of a kind not seen since the height of the insurgency.
There are still guerrillas in the valley, but a few hundred compared with several thousand before. Most are young men who have stolen rifles and gone to hide in the forested hillsides, where they broadcast their defiance on social media and occasionally die in firefights with soldiers. They enjoy sympathy in parts of the valley, especially in the south, where an estimated 20,000 turned out to march at the funeral for the slain insurgent.
The central government is right to worry about such shows of support. But it is wrong to regard calls for azaadi (independence) as tantamount to violence. Those who throw stones at soldiers (often in response to aggression by the army) are routinely described as militants. Indian media report, with flimsy evidence, that Pakistan pays protesters 500 rupees ($8) per projectile hurled. By conflating the two kinds of unrest, the government limits its options for dealing with the less deadly kind. On May 21st Jitendra Singh, a central-government minister, said his colleagues would like to meet stakeholders in the state. But the government will not talk to any group that supports independence for Kashmir. That rules out the only one that enjoys broad support in the valley: the Hurriyat conference, a coalition of about 30 parties that want separation from India by peaceful means.
Support for the separatist cause has grown since 2014, when Narendra Modi took over as prime minister after a sweeping victory by his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in national elections. In those polls, many Kashmiris voted for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), an independence-leaning group which the central government could just about bring itself to talk to because its demands were not too explicit. The PDP won a majority in the Kashmir valley, but to the dismay of its supporters it formed a coalition with the BJP, which had won handsomely in Hindu-dominated Jammu. As a result, many of the PDPs voters turned their back to the parties recognised by India.
Haseeb Drabu, a founder of the PDP who is the finance minister in Srinagar, defends his partys decision to join forces with the BJP. He says no one was in a better position than Mr Modi to bring peace to Kashmir. But the assurances given to Mr Drabu by the BJP, including that the government would talk to the Hurriyat and other pro-independence parties, have been cast aside amid the growing unrest.
The government in Delhi should enter talks with separatist groups before their supporters become too enraged to countenance any discussions. Anger in Srinagar is already all-pervasive. On May 15th a delegation from Indias college-accrediting body paid a visit to Sri Pratap College, the most prestigious centre of higher education in Srinagar. Minutes before, students had clashed with the army; they were still scrambling to escape when the delegates arrived. The visitors had to pick their way through broken bricks and twisted bars of steel, with tear gas wafting around them. The protesters were not from Sri Pratap, the principal insisted, but from a scruffier place. Still, in a graduate lounge, post-doctoral students from Sri Pratap were only too eager to express admiration for the protesters, and contempt for India.
The Article First Appeared In Economist
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