In Indian Kashmir, YouTube generation defines new struggle
By Izhar Wani
SRINAGAR, July 23, 2010 (AFP) – For six weeks, in scenes reminiscent of Palestinian intifadas, hundreds of young Kashmiris like 17-year-old Amjad Khan have taken to the streets to pelt stones at Indian security forces. Government forces have struggled to contain the outpouring of anger triggered by the killing of a schoolboy by police in early June. Protests began in the main city Srinagar and have spread widely.
The unrest marks a new phase in resistance to Indian rule in the disputed territory, some observers believe, revealing the deep frustration of the new generation in the 12-million-strong mostly Muslim local population. In the violence, in which security forces are accused of killing 17 young locals, others see a danger of radicalisation in a region that was beginning to emerge from an insurgency that has claimed an estimated 47,000 lives.
“I have taken to stone-throwing to show my anger, my hatred at the present state of affairs,” says the softly spoken Khan (name changed), as he stands in one of Srinagar’s narrow back streets.
The son of a government employee father, who disapproves of his behaviour, Khan is dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt and has his hair gelled in a style familiar from Indian Bollywood films.
He says he is not a particularly devout Muslim and attends Friday prayers only to be able to join the regular protests that take place afterwards, denouncing Indian rule in the territory.
Born during the insurgency like most of the under-20 protestors — tech-savvy Internet users who are harnessing Facebook and YouTube to highlight their struggle — he has known nothing but violence and turmoil in Kashmir. “Why should this problem linger on if so many other problems have been resolved?” he asks.
When the subcontinent was divided in 1947, Kashmir’s Hindu leader opted to take his mainly Muslim subjects into Hindu-majority India rather than Pakistan and the two nuclear-armed neighbours have since fought two wars over the territory.
Kashmir is divided into Indian and Pakistani-controlled regions, with both countries claiming the territory in full. For two decades from 1989, a violent anti-India insurgency raged in the Indian part, making it one of the most dangerous places on the planet in the mid-1990s.
But the intensity of the attacks has waned significantly in recent years, widely attributed to the start of peace talks between India and Pakistan in 2004. Before the latest wave of unrest, there was talk of major troop withdrawals and revival of the region’s main economic activity, tourism.
— Delhi gropes for a response —
The government in New Delhi has tried to paint the protests as the work of shadowy Pakistani extremists, but many local leaders believe the underlying reason is despair among the young generation about their prospects.
There are over 400,000 unemployed young people across the state and decades of on-off political dialogue about the status of the disputed territory have yielded few rewards and no end to the deadlock. Some pro-India parties call for autonomy for the region, moderate separatists seek independence and hardliners continue to campaign for a merger with Pakistan.
“The single largest factor today is that people don’t see the light at the end of the dark tunnel they were hoping to see,” the state’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, admitted on Indian news channel NDTV earlier this month. “Until we resolve it politically we will always have problems.”
A wave of street protests, which observers date back to mid-2008 when the state government attempted to transfer a piece of land to a revered Hindu shrine, reveal this frustration.
Indian army chief General V.K. Singh said last month that the battle against anti-India insurgents had been more or less won, but people needed to feel that progress was being made to improve their lives. “Militarily, we have brought the overall internal security situation in Jammu and Kashmir under control. Now, the need is to handle things politically,” he told the Times of India in an interview. He added that he felt “a great requirement for political initiatives that take all people together.”
In New Delhi, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram has pushed the notion that the protests are being orchestrated by militant groups and Pakistan.
He has sanctioned a crackdown, with the army out on the streets, text messages banned to disrupt communication between protestors and strict curfews in place across most of the region.
He has also pointed the finger at the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba militant group, which India blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left 166 people dead.
Others have suggested the protestors are being paid by hardline separatists — a theory that has been widely challenged, even among pro-India politicians in Kashmir. “Linking the genuine anger and anguish among people with terrorism is nothing short of an assault on their self respect and dignity,” said former chief minister Mufti Sayeed of the pro-India People’s Democratic Party.
Mehboob Beigh, who is close to chief minister Abdullah and advocates autonomy in the region, agrees.
Political alienation of Kashmiris is the larger issue,” he said. “Our youth want to be heard. New Delhi should listen to them with compassion and sincerity or we may soon see another cycle of violence.”
So far, the young men on the streets are gunless rebels. Their weapons of choice are stones and the Internet, with social networking site Facebook and video-sharing platform YouTube key parts of their struggle. “Facebook and YouTube have provided us a platform to convey our aspirations and frustrations to the world,” says Showket Ahmed, 24, who captures events on his mobile phone camera and later uploads them on Facebook.
But former militant commander Javed Mir warns that New Delhi’s hardline response could turn today’s frustrated stone-throwers into new recruits for the severely weakened insurgency.
“Before the launch of the insurgency, I and my friends used to indulge in stone-pelting with the aim of highlighting the Kashmir issue, but we failed,” said Mir, now a separatist campaigner.
“Finally we took to guns and succeeded in bringing Kashmir out of the cold storage. If present protests are ignored, these young men may be forced to follow our path.”