Kashmir burns again as India responds to dissent with violence

The hospitals are filling up with gunshot victims but angry protesters say the world is blind to their plight. Andrew Buncombe reports from Srinagar

From the end of the hospital corridor came frantic shouts, urgent voices that grew ever more desperate.

A dozen men appeared, gathered around a blood-smeared trolley, rushing its occupant towards the emergency surgery room. Abdul Rashid, said his friends, had been shot in the head by police who had opened fire on a peaceful gathering. "There was no stone-pelting, nothing," yelled one of the 25-year-old's friends, as medics pulled shut the doors to the surgery room. "There was no curfew ... They fired indiscriminately."

Once again, Kashmir is burning. Buildings and barricades have been set alight and its people are enflamed. The largest towns are packed with heavily-armed police and the hospital wards are full of young men with gunshot wounds. Around 50 people have been killed since June, more than 31 in the last week alone, and dozens more have been wounded. The dead include young men, teenagers and even a nine-year-old boy, reportedly beaten to death by the security forces after he tried to walk to the local shop.

And yet for all their pain, the people of Kashmir believe they are suffering alone. They say that unlike places such as Kosovo or East Timor, which both secured independence in recent years, the world is deaf to Kashmir's demands for autonomy. They blame the US and UN for not doing more and criticise Britain's David Cameron for refusing to raise the issue of Kashmir when he visited India last month, declining to upset his hosts, with whom he was seeking to boost trade and investment deals, even as he bluntly criticised Pakistan for exporting terror. "We were disappointed and so were the people," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a moderate separatist leader who has been placed under house arrest. "Of all the foreign countries, Britain has more moral responsibility for this mess."

Kashmir has long been troubled with violence and the previous two summers saw clashes between stone-throwers and the police. Yet some observers detect that these recent protests are different. More people have taken to the streets – women and the middle classes among them – and protesters have seemingly been more ready to accept the police's bullets as the price for their struggle to break away from the Indian state. Moreover, the spirit of optimism and hope that existed after a young, idealist politician, Omar Abdullah, became chief minister 18 months ago, has disappeared. Some suggest Kashmir is witnessing an uprising.

If so, then the frontlines of this uprising are the stone-littered and razor wire-strewn streets of Kashmir's largest towns such as Srinagar and Baramulla. It is here, amid rubbish and waste that has not been cleared for weeks, that crowds of demonstrators have repeatedly ignored curfew orders and the threat of being shot on sight to protest against the authorities. Some demonstrators have hurled stones at the police as if to incite a response, and cars and government buildings have been set alight. Yet many protests have been peaceful.

The police and paramilitary forces have responded with crushing force. Untrained and ill-equipped to deal with demonstrators using non-lethal methods, they have used tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds to dispel the crowds.

With the crisis worsening and with the central government in Delhi increasingly concerned, Mr Abdullah, this week flew to the capital and asked for additional security personnel to be dispatched. He was granted his wish in the form of 1,500 paramilitaries and 300 special police.

This Rapid Action Force arrived in Srinagar on Thursday and by yesterday afternoon they were carrying out patrols through several many of the city's neighbourhoods. Kitted out in blue uniforms and armed with automatic weapons, riot shields and helmets, these police sat unsmiling in their vehicles while residents simmered and stared. "They just want to make us scared, but we are not scared of these forces," declared Abdul Rehman Billoo, a 50-year-old businessman, after a convoy of police trucks clattered through the city's Ikhwan Chowk neighbourhood. "I am involved in the protests. Everybody is involved in the protests, from 50 years to 100 years. There is no age limit."

A spokesman for the state government, Taj Mohi-Ud-Din, admitted the police in Jammu and Kashmir, which has been fighting militants since the late 1980s, were trained in counter-insurgency rather than crowd control. He said investment needed to be made in new non-lethal weapons, such as sonic guns and pepper sprays.

Yet he defended the government's actions, saying the authorities had no alternative but to confront protesters who were damaging property and police were acting with restraint. "The directions are that they should only fire with rubber bullets, but there can always be exceptions," he said. "We have said maximum restraint should be shown: firing should be the last resort."

Yet amid the gloomy corridors and busy wards of Srinagar's Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, such words ring hollow. If the streets are the frontline of Kashmir's uprising, then this hospital is one of the places where the human cost of such an undertaking has been most clearly calculated. Since 30 July, the establishment has received more than 110 patients, injured either by rocks, tear gas or bullets. In the space of little over 60 minutes on Thursday evening, five injured people were brought in, among them Mr Rashid, the man who had been shot in the head by security forces in the town of Pulwama, 25 miles from Srinagar. Last night a medic said he remained in a critical condition.

On a ward on the hospital's second floor where his friends and family clustered around, a 19-year-old man called Fidah Nabi was also in a critical condition. The teenager had been admitted on Tuesday after he too was shot in the head. Doctors operated on his mouth but had not dared remove the bullet from his brain and instead placed him in a medical coma. His face was swollen like a prize-fighter's and his head was swathed in bandages, with wires and tubes hooked to monitors and drips. He was breathing by means of a ventilator. Mr Nabi's elder brother, Ahmad, a photojournalist, said his brother had been shot after police opened fire on a group of demonstrators. He insisted that his brother was "completely innocent".

On Thursday afternoon, Mr Abdullah, the chief minister, had landed by helicopter in the hospital grounds and visited the wards, stopping to meet Mr Nabi's family. One of his aides apparently asked if the state could offer a job to one of the family by means of compensation. Mr Nabi's mother said she responded by grabbing the chief minister by the shirt. Outside, confronted by angry crowds, the chief minister's security guards spirited him away to his waiting helicopter.

"The police are firing at the head and the body, not the legs. This is a against human rights," said one senior doctor, examining a CT scan image of Mr Nabi's brain. A female colleague, who had worked there for seven years, said the situation was worse than she had ever seen. Children and women were among the victims. "We had another shooting victim come in tonight from Sopore. He is also critical," she added.

Indeed, a quick tour of the wards found many recent cases of gunshot injuries. Most of the injured were young men but in one bed lay a woman, Munera Dobi, who had been shot in the back six days ago, also in Pulwama. The woman's husband, Ahmed, said he was unsure if he would be able to work, now he would have to spend time nursing his wife. "We need freedom from India," he said.

The Indian government is in no mind to give Kashmir its freedom. Since 1947, when the formerly independent state's princely ruler, the Hindu Maharaja Hari Singh, controversially chose to join India rather than Pakistan, Delhi has vigorously defended the state against both Pakistan-backed militants and peaceful campaigners. The militancy, which gathered pace in 1989 and has now largely quietened, has claimed the lives of at least 60,000 people and resulted in the creation of one of the most highly militarised places on the planet. "Everyone knows that Kashmir is paradise on earth, but [the security forces] are making it hell," said a friend of Mr Nabi.

Even now, the central government appears either unable or unwilling to try and break the cycle of violence, opting to send in more police and paramilitaries rather than seeking to offer some sort of political gesture, however minimal, that might break the deadlock. When it was reported that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had voiced his "concern" about the current violence, officials in Delhi described his comments as "gratuitous". Even yesterday, India's home minister, was seeking to deny the home-grown nature of the protests telling parliament "Pakistan appears to have altered its strategy in influencing events in Jammu and Kashmir. It is possible that they believe that relying upon civilian unrest will pay them better dividends".

Without a bold political gesture the loop of violence is unlikely to end. Protests will go on, young people will throw stones, the police will kill people, there will be angry funerals that lead to more protests, more stones will be thrown, the police will shoot and kill more people. Kashmir's agony is set to continue.

Decades of conflict

Why is there a dispute?

Kashmir has been at the heart of hostilities between India and Pakistan for more than 60 years. Kashmir, a largely Muslim state, joined India when it gained independence from Britain in 1947 on the wish of its Hindu ruler. The decision sparked the first of three wars between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

The state was partitioned in 1948 along a ceasefire line, leaving two-thirds under the control of India and one-third under Pakistan. Both sides still claim the whole of the state. In addition to the rival claims of the two countries, a separatist movement began in 1989 against Indian rule. In the Kashmir valley, between 75 per cent and 95 per cent of people support independence from both India and Pakistan, according to a poll by the think-tank Chatham House. The two decades of violence between Indian security forces and Pakistan-backed militants have left more than 60,000 people dead.

Who is behind the latest protests?

Omar Abdullah, Kashmir's chief minister, has not blamed any group in particular and says the protests were mainly leaderless. Human rights groups say India's Armed Forces Special Powers Act – which gives security forces wide powers to shoot, arrest and search in battling a separatist insurgency – further alienates Kashmiris. India yesterday suggested that Pakistan was behind a "new strategy" of inciting civilian unrest.

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