Violence hounds Kashmir’s cautious path to democracy

Militant separatists are killing the elected village leaders, in the latest setback for a region beset by schisms. Andrew Buncombe reports from Goripora

Village leader Zoona Kumar did not recognise the man who came to her house three weeks ago with a plan to kill her. His face was concealed by a scarf and he said nothing as he took out a gun, jammed it at her throat and fired.

“There was a knock on the door. I went to the door. I don’t know how many men there were,” she said, propped up in bed, her right eyelid sewn shut. “There had been no threats, not a clue. Everyone had been supportive of what we were doing.” Although Mrs Kumar lost an eye in the shooting, doctors at a Srinagar hospital were somehow able to save her life. Others have not been so fortunate.

Since 2011 when about 34,000 village council leaders – or sarpanches – were elected in Indian-controlled Kashmir in an experiment in grass-roots democracy, at least eight have been killed and countless more threatened, apparently by Pakistan-based militant separatist groups. Thousands of those who took up posts in order to help local development now say they want to quit.

The wave of attacks on sarpanches has threatened to undermine one of the central achievements of the Indian authorities in Kashmir. It has also underscored the tensions in a place that India and Pakistan have fought three wars over and where troops are still regularly killed on the unofficial border known as the Line of Control.

Last night, most of Indian-controlled Kashmir was under curfew amid fears that the execution of an alleged militant hanged in Delhi could spark attacks against Indian targets. But for local administrators, the threat of violence looms every day.

As with Mrs Kumar, when Habibullah Mir stood for office in Goripora, about 45 miles west of Kashmir’s summer capital, Srinagar, he wanted to help people in a village that has electricity for no more than an hour a day. “You only have to look at our home,” said his widow, Hajra Begum, sitting in their freezing, unfinished house. “He was too busy to finish building this.”

Most of his time, she said, was spent arranging drainage projects, road construction and the installation of lavatories at the local school and the mosque. He rarely came home before 11pm. But someone brought that work to an end. At lunchtime on 11 January, as Mr Mir was overseeing work at the mosque, he was approached by a man no one had seen before who said he had some private business with him.

According to Ali Mohammed Mir, his brother, who was working at the mosque, the stranger also covered most of his face with a scarf and wore a dark pheran, a traditional Kashmiri shawl, baggy enough to conceal a small, hand-carried stove of embers or, in this case, a pistol. “There was a cement mixer on, there was lots of noise,” said Ali Mohammed Mir, explaining why he heard no gunshot. “Ten minutes later people came shouting that Habibullah Mir had been shot.”

His brother, who grew apples on a half-acre of orchards and who had three children, was hit by a single bullet in the neck. Villagers raced to the nearest hospital, in the town of Sopore, but Mr Mir was dead on arrival. He was buried alongside his father in the village graveyard, just yards from the muddy track where he was killed.

The attacks on Mr Mir and Mrs Kumar took place within a couple of days of each other and just a few miles apart. Both of the sarpanches were elected in the Sopore district, an area known as a stronghold of anti-Indian militants 20 years ago and where such individuals are still active today.

S M Sahai, the Inspector General of police for Kashmir, said that while investigations were continuing, there was an assumption the attacks were ordered by militants, who might have “outsourced” the work to others. To try to reassure the sarpanches, he said, police were being redeployed to areas considered to have a higher threat. “But I think they know there is a limit to how much can be done,” he admitted.

Officials estimate there may be 300 militants living on the Indian side of the Line of Control, of whom 50 are considered “active”. Most are linked to militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahedin, based across the border in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Starting in the late 1980s and peaking in the early 1990s, the militancy and attendant operations by security forces have claimed at least 50,000 lives. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus have been forced from the Muslim-dominated region.

Today, despite claims by the state Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, of “a significant decline in violence”, Kashmir remains home to at least 600,000 security personnel. They have repeatedly been accused of human rights abuses.

To the visitor, their ubiquity within the winter landscape is startling; a lone soldier silently stands watch in an orchard of pollarded trees; a line of troops make their way along either side of an ice-edged country road in the early morning; troops hold up traffic in the marketplace.

“There are a number of reasons for the decline in militancy – international pressure on Pakistan, disenchantment, a fence between the two countries,” Mr Abdullah said. Development projects in Kashmir were also important, but he added: “We would be stupid if we thought that by building roads and hospitals and schools that we would no longer have a problem. You cannot buy or shoot your way to a solution. You have to talk.”

While elected village leaders are commonplace elsewhere in India, in Kashmir the system had not operated for more than 30 years. Although Mr Abdullah insisted his motive for reintroducing them was to help development, others have seen them as strengthening the hand of the Indian state. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a staunch separatist, condemned the attacks on the sarpanches but called on local officials to join the “freedom movement”.

“When the elections happened, we appealed to those taking part not to participate,” he said. “We are under occupation and no sort of election … is suitable or purposeful for resolving the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. We are under occupation and we demand we be given self-determination.”

Sarpanch leaders across the state have demanded the government do more to protect them. They have also urged members to stay in their posts. More than 80 have formally resigned while thousands have expressed a desire to do so, even taking out advertisements in local papers.

Strikingly, Mrs Kumar, the woman who answered the door to a stranger and who was shot, may not be among those giving up the post that made her proud by being able to help others. Having already turned down an offer of extra police protection, she said this week: “I cannot say whether I will resign or not. I will wait to see how I feel.”

Riots flare as militant hanged

AP

One person was killed as protests broke out in at least two parts of Indian-controlled Kashmir yesterday, despite a strict curfew to prevent violence after the execution of a Kashmiri man convicted in a deadly attack on India’s Parliament in 2001.

Mohammed Afzal Guru was hanged in Delhi on Saturday. The authorities ordered people in the disputed Kashmir region to remain indoors indefinitely in anticipation of anti-India protests.

Today, scores of people defied the curfew.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'
tv
Extras
indybest 9 best steam generator irons
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Danish director Lars von Trier
tvEnglish-language series with 'huge' international cast set for 2016
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Officer (HMP Brixton Mentoring Project)

£24,000 per annum pro rata (18 hours per week): Belong: Work as part of a cutt...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

DT teachers required for supply roles in Cambridge

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: DT teachers required ...

Secondary supply teachers required in Wisbech

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary teachers ne...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering