Kashmiris stay away from India's celebration

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The Independent Online

Kashmir is an integral part of India, the country's Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, repeated again yesterday, on the 55th anniversary of India's independence.

Kashmir is an integral part of India, the country's Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, repeated again yesterday, on the 55th anniversary of India's independence.

The occasion was the Independence Day Celebrations at the Bakshi Stadium in Srinagar. "Dr Farooq Abdullah, chief minister, Jammu and Kashmir, will take the salute", my invitation explained.

The programme started at 8.55am, but our presence was required by 8am for security reasons. As I left my hotel by taxi, a platoon of soldiers approached on both sides of the street in helmets and flak vests, automatic rifles at the ready.

On the 20-minute journey to the centre of town, past Dahl Lake and through lanes of high, half-timbered traditional houses and rundown shops, there was hardly a second when armed soldiers were not in view. Of Kashmiris, I saw about half a dozen: an old, dazed-looking man walking down the middle of the road; a couple of youths sitting on a wall. Apart from army Jeeps, ours was the only vehicle on the move.

At the state banqueting hall, the press and television invitees were collected by bus and transported to the stadium. Army trucks blocked nearby roads; soldiers and paramilitaries swarmed.

But inside the perimeter, all was oddly quiet and low key for a major national event: no queues, no fast-food vendors, no bunting, no buzz of anticipation. After being searched twice I entered the stadium and found out why. It was nearly empty.

Built to house 20,000 spectators, it could not have contained more than 500. One bank of seats contained VIPs, state guests, national conference politicians and senior military men. Two sections on the far side were partially occupied by police in civilian clothes. Apart from them, and the journalists, that was all.

The event was in celebration of that momentous day, exactly 55 years ago, when Jawarhalal Nehru, a son of Kashmir, declared India independent of Britain. Yesterday, the people of Kashmir - at least the five million overwhelmingly Muslim who inhabit the Kashmir Valley - did not wish to know. They had not been invited, and they would not have attended if you had paid them.

Dr Abdullah arrived in an Ambassador, the trademark Indian car, and the only Indian tricolour to be seen in Srinagar yesterday was quickly hoisted.

Immaculate in a long black high-buttoned coat, white pants and slippers and a grey fez, he inspected the ranks of locally raised police and centrally recruited paramilitaries. On the podium, behind bullet-proof glass, he delivered a meandering, occasionally impassioned oration to 19,000 empty seats, excoriating Pakistan and expressing his devout hopes for a brighter future.

The final item was the cultural programme. Men and women in Kashmiri folk dress, some carrying musical instruments, came out of the tunnel and performed traditional songs and a dance. A policeman said to me out of the corner of his mouth: "They are all police."

Such a surrealistic, farcical parody of a celebration is the way Kashmir has marked India's Independence Day every year for 10 years: a shutdown of business and social activity in the Valley and complete absenteeism from the stadium.

The received wisdom in Delhi is that Kashmir's insurgency died a couple of years after it started and that the militant activity is sponsored and stimulated by Pakistan.

But India's forces have brutalised the Kashmiri population randomly, relentlessly, day after day for 10 years; no occupying power could have done a more thorough job of making themselves hated. As yesterday's sullen shutdown and the near-total boycott of polls in the last general election demonstrated, the disaffection of Muslim Kashmiris from the Indian state is now as near total as makes no difference.