Kashmir protests: another tragedy of timing

July 6, 2010

morekashmirAnother three people have been killed in Kashmir in the biggest anti-India demonstrations in two years, bringing the death toll to at least 14 in the last three weeks. You can see some video of the protests in the Kashmiri capital Srinagar here – please watch it and remember that only a few years ago peace had returned to the streets of Srinagar after more than a decade of violence.

While Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram has suggested the violence is being whipped up by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, our correspondent in Srinagar says that many local Kashmiris believe the protests are largely spontaneous.

If that is the case, it is a tragedy of timing. As discussed nearly two years ago on this blog, Kashmir has an entire generation of young people who have grown up knowing only what it is to live in the midst of an insurgency.  Then, after India and Pakistan re-opened a formal peace process in 2004, violence began to drop dramatically (something that has usually gone unacknowledged by Delhi but was obvious to anyone who regularly visited Kashmir).

The sense you picked up was of a shift away from what was at most tacit tolerance for Pakistan-backed militant groups (anyone who questions this should first read Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night) into a belief in peaceful protests, led by the younger generation. It is that younger generation who are throwing stones today, and seeing their own being killed. That is what makes the latest round of violence in Kashmir so dangerous. If the youth of Kashmir are radicalised anew, as happened when an earlier generation protested against Indian rule in 1989, the cycle of rage begins again.

One of the most telling comments in the latest round of violence in Kashmir came from separatist leader Mirwaiz Omar Farouk, when he said that the protests were not about Muslim Kashmir vs Hindu India. He would not have had to say that before – the Kashmir separatist revolt at the start was always more about nationhood than religion. That he now has to deny the communal undertones highlights how far these have grown.

The latest protests also come as India and Pakistan have begun a tentative attempt at peace-making after a long diplomatic limbo following the November 2008 attack on Mumbai. Their foreign ministers are due to meet on July 15 to take the process forward. Both have an interest in trying to reduce tensions, if nothing else but because the uncertainty over U.S. policy in Afghanistan threatens new instability in the region. Yet neither country will find it politically easy to accommodate each other if Kashmir is going up in flames.

The protests in Kashmir also coincide with some fresh soul-searching in Pakistan over the role of militant groups – some of whom were once nurtured to fight India in Kashmir – following  last weeks suicide bombing of one of the country’s most popular Sufi shrines in Lahore. A perception of “Indian oppression” against fellow Muslims in Kashmir has always fed into popular support for militants fighting for its “liberation” – so in another tragedy of timing, the crackdown in Srinagar is likely to make it harder for those voices within Pakistan who want to win backing against Islamist militant groups.

Anyone who has ever studied the history of India and Pakistan – right back to pre-partition days – will know that their tortuous relationship has been based on misunderstandings and bad timing. And Kashmir has always been caught in the middle. Yet even the most optimistic cannot resist the impression that the regional environment is worsening. 

As one person commented on my last post – albeit in a different context about the relationship between India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan – using language  that perhaps expressed more than a journalist can in thousands of words:

“It is all one bloody mess … isn’t it. Every one is caught in every one else’s web..”

(Reuters photo/Fayaz Kabli)

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