Srinagar: Born and reared during the bloodiest years of insurgency and counterinsurgency, inheritors of rage, a new generation of young Kashmiris poured into the streets by the tens of thousands over the past several weeks, with stones in their fists and an old slogan on their lips: Azadi, or freedom, from India.
Their protests in Kashmir were part of an unexpected outburst of discontent set off by a dispute over a 99-acre piece of land, which has for more than two months been stoked by both separatist leaders in Muslim-majority Kashmir and Hindu nationalists elsewhere in India.
Overnight, the unrest has threatened to breathe new life into the old and treacherous dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, which is claimed by both nations and lies at the heart of 60 years of bitterness between them.
Disastrously for the Indian government, Kashmir has burst onto centre stage at a time of growing turmoil in the region — with the resignation this week of Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, who had sought to temper his country’s backing for anti-Indian militancy here.
Even though the two countries have been engaged in four years of peace talks, India has grown nervous that the disarray in Pakistan has left it with no negotiating partner. From New Delhi’s perspective, that power vacuum has allowed anti-Indian elements in Pakistan’s intelligence services and the militant groups they employ to pursue their agenda with renewed vigour.
Relations between the countries have become newly embittered as Indian and Pakistani forces have engaged in skirmishes across the Line of Control. Not least, India has blamed the Pakistani intelligence services for playing a hidden role in the bombing of the Indian embassy in Afghanistan last month, a charge that Pakistan vehemently denies.
The latest unrest here has only added to the difficulties of renewed dialogue.
How long this agitation will continue depends on both India’s capacity to assuage Kashmiri separatist leaders, and their ability in turn to control the sudden eruption of rage among the young.
On Monday, tens of thousands of Kashmiris, mostly men, streamed into an open area in the city centre and demanded independence from India. They came in motorcycle cavalcades, and on the backs of trucks and buses.
A few waved Pakistani flags. Some shouted praise for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the banned Pakistan-based militant organization that India blames for a series of terrorist attacks in recent years. “India, your death will come,” they chanted. “Lashkar will come. Lashkar will come.”
By Tuesday, traffic had returned to the city, as the separatists called for a three-day suspension of the strike. Shops and cafes reopened. The pro-Pakistan graffiti had been covered up, as though it were again an ordinary day.
Again and again, Kashmiris from across the political spectrum said the scenes now reminded them of the peak of the anti-Indian rebellion in the early 1990s, except at that time, separatist guerrillas, aided by Pakistan, openly roamed the streets with guns.
The current demonstrations have pierced what seemed, perhaps deceptively to the Indian government, such as a return of the ordinary here.
“The uprising we see now is the latent anger against the Indian state that has erupted again.” N.N. Vohra, governor of Jammu and Kashmir, compared life in Srinagar today to darkness at noon.
The trouble began two months ago over 99 acres of government land that, for decades, had been used by Hindu pilgrims on the route to the Amarnath shrine. In May, the authorities authorized the panel that runs the pilgrimage site to put up “prefabricated structures” for pilgrims. The order enraged Muslims.
With state elections scheduled for this year, some politicians and separatist leaders pounced on the decision and declared it a bid to re-engineer the demography of Kashmir. Hardline Islamists compared it to the Israeli occupation of Muslim holy lands.
The government rescinded the order, but nothing, as Vohra said, actually changed —Hindu pilgrims still used the land, and they still came this year in record numbers.
Nevertheless, the retraction of the original order enraged people in the Hindu-majority plains of Jammu. And they, too, were goaded by politicians and hardline leaders.
All told, over the past two months, the protests here in the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley and counterprotests led by Hindu groups in the plains below, have left a death toll of nearly 40 in clashes with security forces.
Kashmiri public opinion is hardly uniformly anti-Indian, and the pro-Pakistan current is one among many. But distrust runs deep.
“It is a volcano that has erupted,” Shad Salim Akhtar, 54, a doctor, said of the latest agitation.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Yusuf Jameel contributed to this story