Cries for freedom in Kashmir as India celebrates Independence Day

Its tranquil setting is deceiving: In verdant valleys and forested hillsides against the high snow-capped Himalayas, Kashmir boils over yet again in what has become a regular cycle of protests and violence.

Srinagar, Kashmir (dpa) – Men, women and young people are taking to the streets of Kashmir every other day, defying curfew orders and attacking police and soldiers – the symbols of «Indian rule» – with stones.

In India-administered Kashmir, they are shouting out their desire for «azadi» (freedom).

Indian security forces have tried to disperse the crowds, using teargas, canes, steel pellets and bullets. More than 50 people have died and an estimated 3,000 have been injured in the latest flare up in the battered region.

In India’s capital New Delhi, the federal government on Friday kicked off a week celebrating the country’s 70th Independence Day which falls on August 15, marking freedom from British rule.

In the Kashmir valley, the disputed part of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state, separatists called for a week of protests with Independence Day to be observed as a «black day.»

Separatist leaders see the «Kashmir issue» as an unfinished task that cannot be resolved until the people decide whether they want to remain with India, go with Pakistan or become independent.

Such a referendum was to be held with the support of the United Nations as India was divided and gained independence from British rule as two nations – India and Pakistan – in August 1947.

Kashmir was then a princely state with a Hindu king and a predominantly Muslim population. Raja Hari Singh opted for India, Pakistan asserted control of part of the territory, the Indian Army moved in to guard the rest.

The referendum was never held.

Nuclear-capable neighbours India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir and have stationed large numbers of troops on either side of the disputed border that runs through the Kashmir region.

A violent, secessionist militant movement reared its head in India-administered Kashmir in the 1980s with New Delhi blaming Islamabad – a charge it denied.

In Kashmir, anger against the Indian state grew as the military and police were given sweeping powers to weed out militancy. As part of those efforts, some locals were harassed and abused, rights groups said.

«What happens here can never happen elsewhere in India. Our internet is cut off, our phones are restricted, we are forced to stay indoors, teenaged boys are picked up and killed at the slightest provocation,» said schoolteacher Arif Mahmood.

Doctors treating the wounded say pellet guns should never be used on civilians. «Some of them will lose their eyesight … such casualties are seen in a war zone,» said Mahesh Shanmugam, a visiting eye specialist from the southern city of Bangalore.

The latest round of protests in the Kashmir valley was triggered by the killing of 22-year-old militant, Burhan Wani, on July 8. A divisional commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen group, Wani would frequently post videos and photos on social media and invite young people to join his cause.

It was the summer of 2010 and the Kashmir valley was in the throes of violence, with youth taking to the streets in protest. Some 120 civilians were killed in retaliatory action by security forces.

Teenaged Wani, the son of a teacher in the town of Tral in south Kashmir, was two years away from graduating from school.

He was out with his older brother and a friend for a motorbike ride when they were stopped by security forces. He witnessed police brutally beating his brother and friend. A few months later Wani left home to join the militants.

«The younger generations who have seen only turbulent times and have no hopes of a solution are seething with anger as they witness harassment, killing and humiliation by security forces. For them Burhan (Wani) was a hero,» said social activist Nazir Ahmed.

The Kashmir government has struggled to restore a semblance of normalcy. Schools, colleges and businesses are closed, the tourist season has suffered, and the continous curfew for 35 days now has confined people to their homes as supplies run low.

In New Delhi, the lower house of parliament passed an unanimous resolution to reach out to the people of Kashmir. Prime Minister Narendra Modi held an all-party meeting. Security forces have been asked to act with restraint.

«It is no use pretending that what the Indian government has on its hands is a fleeting law and order problem created from time to time by a fickle, volatile people,» author Arundhati Roy wrote in Outlook magazine.

Roy and many others believe the only way forward is a dialogue to discuss with Kashmiris what they mean by «azadi.»

«What matters is what Kashmiris want, and how to arrive at that consensus in the most peaceful, democratic and informed way possible,» she wrote.


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