Kashmir Muslims still fight for independence: As Indian forces continue to terrorise the population, doubts grow about guerrilla tactics, writes Tim McGirk in Srinagar

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THEY came in through the bathroom window, eight Indian soldiers, all armed. It was midnight, and the bedlam awoke two young Britons sleeping in the room next door at the New Peony houseboat on Dal Lake in Kashmir. Adam Zoltowski leapt from bed and, in his confusion, put on his trousers back to front.

The soldiers pointed a gun at Mr Zoltowksi's chest.

'What are you hiding behind your back?' one of the soldiers yelled.

'Nothing,' replied Mr Zoltowski, an art student from Fulham, London. 'I'm holding up my trousers.'

Some of the soldiers turned their attention to Mr Zoltowski's girlfriend, Simone Wilkinson from Essex, in bed with a sheet wrapped around her. 'Who is this woman? Is she naked? Why? And why is she smoking?'

Eventually, after stealing a few items from the houseboat, the soldiers vanished into the willows beside the lake, leaving the two Britons shaken but unharmed.

Mr Zoltowski and Ms Wilkinson were lucky. Had they been Kashmiris things could have ended differently. In trying to crush a five-year revolt in this north-western Himalayan corner, the Indian security forces have killed more than 7,500 Kashmiris. Indian forces have not succeeded in halting the rebellion, only in intensifying the Kashmiris' hatred against them.

The Dar family lived behind the canals of old Srinagar. There had been sniper fire by Kashmiri guerrillas earlier on 1 August, and when Sub-inspector Ajmer Singh of the Border Security Force emerged from his bunker, he glimpsed a flash of movement in a doorway.

Armed with a semi-automatic rifle, he kicked in the door. He shot eight- year-old Hilal Ahmed Dar three times. When the boy's parents came running downstairs, he shot them, too. A neighbour said that the officer turned to his comrades and held up three fingers. 'Three]' he exulted. 'I killed three of them]'

In fact, he had not killed the boy. Wounded in the neck, shoulder and leg, the boy lay bleeding in the doorway. He cried for water. 'I tried to help him,' said Hilal's grandfather, Ghulam, 'but they forced me away.'

When news of this barbarity spread through Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital, thousands of people roared through the streets, hurling stones and tearing open their shirts, taunting the Indian soldiers to shoot them. Too often, the soldiers obliged. Six people died and another 200 were injured. Rarely are Indian security forces punished for atrocities, but this time, pressure was too great. Sub-inspector Singh was arrested.

As India celebrated its 46th year of independence from Britain yesterday, one Kashmiri asked me: 'What have we gained? The Englishmen were never as bad as this.' It was a sentiment echoed often, in rooms crowded with sullen mourners and even whispered among top-level Kashmiris within the Indian bureaucracy.

At the time of Britain's partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, Kashmir's Hindu maharajah sided with India, even though a majority of his subjects were Muslims, as are the Pakistanis. Pakistan and India have gone to war repeatedly over Kashmir, and the dispute still poisons their relations. Some fear both countries may use the nuclear arsenals they are said to possess over Kashmir. The militant groups are divided into those who want an autonomy and others, covertly armed by Islamabad, who want to become part of Pakistan.

Apart from a few backpackers, the only foreigners here are jihadis, Islamic zealots from Afghanistan, Sudan, the Gulf, and the Middle East. For them, Kashmir is a conflict between Islam and Hinduism, since most of the 300,000 Indian security forces are Hindus. Indian intelligence claim that as many as 500 jihadis may be fighting alongside the Kashmiris militants.

In Kashmir, Hindus and Muslims have prided themselves on religious tolerance. But the mercilessness of these new arrivals has stunned many Kashmiris. The massacre of 15 Hindus, who were taken off a bus in the Doda district at the weekend by insurgents and gunned down, may have been carried out by Afghans.

Quietly, many Kashmiris have also begun to doubt the methods of the guerrillas. Many militant leaders are either dead or in jail, and the younger commanders often find it more profitable - and safer - to rob and extort money from shopkeepers than battle against the Indian forces .