Kashmir death toll rises as India faces fresh protests

 

THE DEATH toll from the recent round of recurring clashes between demonstrators and the security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir province is now close to 50.

Most of the dead were shot by the security forces for defying a curfew.

Since the middle of June, the Kashmir valley has been rocked by violent agitation. Protesters, angry over decades of repressive Indian rule over their disputed Muslim-majority Himalayan province, have hurled rocks and set government buildings and vehicles alight.

The demonstrators, mostly young men, have been joined by thousands of women, some carrying sticks and stones and chanting: “We want freedom” and “Blood for blood”.

“Under such circumstances you can’t expect us to remain silent,” said Rehana Ashraf (49), a teacher living in Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar with her two young daughters.

“We want to send out a message that we are not weak.”

Volunteers have established blood donation camps, pooled rice and vegetables in community kitchens and supplied food to patients in Srinagar’s hospitals.

“The protests seem to have taken a direction of their own which we’ve never seen before,” said separatist leader Sajjad Gani Lone.

“There is no political leader who could ask for them to stop – the protests have taken on a momentum of their own.”

In response, security forces, mostly federal paramilitaries with shoot-on-sight orders, have fired live ammunition into large crowds of people whose cry is “India go back”, perpetuating the violence that neither the provincial nor the federal authorities seem capable of defusing.

The continuing unrest is reminiscent of the late 1980s, when protests against Delhi’s rule over Kashmir triggered an armed conflict that claimed almost 70,000 lives and took the Indian army, state police and paramilitaries almost 20 years to contain.

Having known nothing but conflict throughout their lives and faced with uncertain futures with little or no hope of employment or betterment, Kashmiri youths are rebelling against a complacent and out-of-touch government they claim has let them down badly.

Since 1989 Kashmir, which is divided between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan but claimed in its entirety by both, has suffered an armed Muslim insurgency in which tens of thousands of civilians had died.

India blames Islamabad for fuelling the insurgency, an allegation it partially accepts.

The neighbours have also fought two of their three wars over Kashmir since they achieved independence in 1947. An 11-week military engagement in 1999 also threatened to escalate into a nuclear exchange.

Federal security officials concede that once again India could be facing a full-blown civil uprising in Kashmir that could plunge the strategic region into chaos.

Indian leaders and security personnel, however, are attempting to portray the protests as incited entirely by Pakistani agent provocateurs, but evidence appears to be mounting that they are a wider, spontaneous movement led by young frustrated Kashmiris.

“In security terms, the absence of a central nervous system means the expanding body of protest cannot be controlled by arresting individual leaders,” Siddharth Varadarajan, strategic affairs editor of the Hindu newspaper said. The spectre of a leaderless revolt made offers of dialogue seem pointless, he warned, of the movement that has paralysed the authorities.

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More than 100 people died and some 200 were injured after a cloud burst triggered flash floods early yesterday in Kashmir’s northern Ladakh region, an area that is popular with western tourists. The overnight floods tore through Leh, the main town in the Buddhist-dominated area when most people were asleep, wreaking what locals officials described as “unprecedented” devastation.