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Volcano Valley

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RECEIVING END: An ill-equipped and often insensitive CRPF has been bad at both offence and defence

It took just one death, that of a 17-year-old schoolboy, to burst the bubble of normalcy in Kashmir. Tufail Mattoo was killed by a tear gas shell that hit him on the back of his head when the police moved in to control a stone-pelting mob in downtown Srinagar after Friday prayers on June 11. Ten deaths later, the spiral of violence that has engulfed the state is a grim reminder that peace is merely an illusion in Kashmir, a chimera that vanishes as quickly as it is conjured up. Today, as Kashmir teeters on the edge of despair, old wounds have reopened. Anger and frustration are seething out of every pore of the young boys, now idly playing carrom on the deserted, curfewbound streets of Srinagar. Azadi is the mood of the moment.

And khaki the proverbial red flag. "We want to be free. We want the Indian army out. Why are they killing us? What have we done?" The words poured out in a burst from 18-year-old Younis, a Class 12 student living in Lal Chowk. He hasn't been to school for almost a week now because of hartals, bandhs and the fear of violence, which have brought life to a standstill in the Kashmir capital.

It's ironic that just one-and-a-half years ago, in November-December 2008, Jammu and Kashmir had the most successful assembly elections ever. A voter turnout of around 60 per cent showed an enthusiasm never before seen in the state. So what if the elections threw up a hung assembly? The political process seemed to be on track with a National Conference-Congress coalition government in power and a vibrant opposition in Mehbooba Mufti's People's Democratic Party (PDP). Militancy was ebbing and even the separatist groups of the Hurriyat Conference had bowed to the seemingly overwhelming desire for democracy with a pre-poll announcement withdrawing their boycott.

Why has peace come unstuck then? And so quickly? Analysts and old timers believe that it was always fragile. "Kashmir is a dormant volcano. It erupts at the slightest pretext. The inability of successive governments to address the Kashmir issue keeps the pot simmering. Any single event can catalyse the situation, " says Sheikh Shaukat Hussain, law professor in Kashmir University.

The paradox of Kashmir is the ease with which peace shatters into violence and then returns to a deceptive calm. In the summer of 2008, just before the widely-hailed elections a few months later, the state plunged into one of the worst cycles of violence seen in a long time. Sixty people died in protests over the transfer of forest land to the Amarnath Shrine Board. And with the yatra kicking off at the same time, both Jammu and Kashmir were poised on the brink of communal tension. Yet, the elections were largely peaceful and the state was hailed as the harbinger of a new brand of politics with the swearing-in of youthful Omar Abdullah as the country's youngest chief minister ever.

There are conflicting views on whether it is Abdullah's failure to consolidate and build on the gains of those elections that has led to the present crisis, or whether the responsibility lies with the central government for neglecting the peace process that former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee started in 2003 and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took forward in the initial years of his first term.

The truth, as usual, is a complex sum of many parts. There is little doubt that the process of democratisation seems to have ground to a halt after the elections. While there was much talk of development, there was little effort to draw civil society into the governance processes. The administration remained apathetic to people's problems, few MLAs bothered to engage with their constituencies after they won and the solution to every incident on the street continued to flow from the barrel of the gun.

Residents boil with anger over what they perceive as the indifference and arrogance of the Abdullah government to the rage that swept Srinagar after three young boys were killed by security forces in quick succession. "The government's response to the first death (of Tufail) was to send out the CRPF, which caused more deaths. There wasn't one word of sympathy or regret, " said one resident who did not want to be identified for fear of government reprisals. "A young boy had died, not a hardened militant or a separatist leader. Surely it's more than a law-and-order or a security problem. "

It would be simplistic to reduce what is happening in Kashmir to small pictures of local grievances. There is undoubtedly a governance deficit that has plagued the state with the collapse of social and political institutions through the last 20 years of militancy. But there is a larger dimension that the central government can ignore only at India's peril. Every small problem in the Valley has the potential of becoming an international incident with Pakistan ready to jump on it for use in its propaganda war against India. Kashmir is not just India's political problem;it is one of its main diplomatic challenges.

There should be, if there isn't already, concern about the paradigm shift in the manner of recent violence in the Valley. Gun-wielding militants have given way to unarmed street protests with stonepelting mobs taking on security forces in a stun-
ning display of misplaced bravado. Analysts point out that these are all youth who have grown up in the shadow of the gun. "They are not frightened by arms and weapons. They have seen their families and friends killed, both by militants and security forces. It's worrying to see the way they jump in front of policemen, bare their chests and dare the cops to shoot them, " said one analyst.

It has created a tricky situation, as Abdullah admitted. Militants can be tackled with guns, but how does a government deal with unarmed mobs of youth and women? The June deaths have sparked off widespread allegations of human rights violations by security forces. It's a flashback to the troubled period in the 1990s when India came under immense international pressure on this very issue with Pakistan ratcheting up the ante after every killing in the Valley.

Much of the anger on the streets is directed against the CRPF, which has been at the forefront of the administration's efforts to quell the recent violence. At least seven of the 11 deaths in June, all of young boys with one just nine years old, were the handiwork of the CRPF. There are 70, 000 CRPF men in J&K, with 30, 000 of them posted in Srinagar alone. And these figures do not include the local police, the Rashtriya Rifles and various other security forces milling around in the state. The Army may have pulled out of cities and towns to border areas, but khaki remains an overwhelming presence, reinforcing the widespread local perception of an occupation force.

There are two sides to every coin. While the death of young boys is a horrible blot on the security forces' copybook, the men in uniform too seem to be a frightened lot, spooked by the fragile security scenario in the state. A senior CRPF officer who wished to remain anonymous said, "None of these men knows whether they will return home alive or not. They live in abysmal conditions in the barracks, they are away from their families and they function in daily uncertainty and unease. "

He maintained that most of the shots fired by the CRPF were in self-defence. "Mobs attacked them in their bunkers and vehicles. They beat them ruthlessly, attacked their camps. Do you expect my men not to defend themselves? My men don't want to kill anybody, but what can they do if they face the prospect of being killed themselves?" he demanded.

The unfolding scenario poses a mind-boggling dilemma for both the state and central governments. Kashmiris have not taken kindly to Union home minister P Chidambaram's claim that the current violence is being masterminded by the Lashkar-e-Taiba. "It's an insult to the people of Kashmir, " declared Mehbooba. Her sentiments were echoed by Imtiaz, a computer engineer. "These are our boys. How can the home minister link them to the LeT?" he asked.

Political scientist Gul Mohammed Wani described Chidambaram's remark as most unfortunate. "Linking the present crisis to the LeT will not help anybody. Delhi must understand the anger in Kashmir and address it, " he said.

Both Wani and Hussain pointed out that the outpouring of street rage was an expression of people's frustration over New Delhi's failure to show progress on the Kashmir issue. "The high turnout in the 2008 elections was not an endorsement of Kashmir's accession to India. This was Delhi's mistaken interpretation. People voted only because they wanted a local administration, " said Hussain. "The status of Kashmir has not been resolved in their minds. Unfortunately, although the Centre engaged with moderate and mainstream leaders through the (three) round table conferences on Kashmir, they became a time-buying exercise. Nothing has come out of them. " Wani, in fact, wondered whether the back channel between the Centre and the state was still open.

While they agreed that the cessation of the Indo-Pak dialogue after the 26/11 terror strike in Mumbai was a major obstacle to pushing the envelope in Kashmir, they felt that New Delhi had failed to implement internal confidence building measures to keep the faith alive. "You don't need Pakistan's endorsement to revoke the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or the Disturbed Areas Act which give security forces the power they have in Kashmir. Do you need Pakistan's consent to restore the pre-1953 centre-state equation, as people have been demanding?" asked Hussain.

Unfortunately, the vacuum created by the disconnect between the people and the government is being filled by hardline separatist leaders like Syed Ali Shah Geelani. He is 80 years old, ailing and in jail but, as Hussain pointed out, he has managed to transmit his sentiments from one generation to another. "If he gives a call for anything today, you can be sure people will respond, " said one analyst. Even the moderate Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq is under house arrest and is being forced to speak Geelani's language in the current atmosphere in the Valley.

The bloody events of June should be a signal to New Delhi that Kashmir is on the edge. While the resumption of talks with Pakistan may help tensions to subside, it cannot be a panacea for the problems in the Valley. Delhi will have to look for more effective and sincere ways to re-engage actively with the people of Kashmir before it's too late.

JINXED JUNE

June 11: Teenager Tufail Ahmad Mattoo dies after a teargas shell hits him while he's caught in a clash between stone-pelting demonstrators and security personnel at Rajouri Kadal in Old Srinagar

June 19:
Mattoo's autopsy confirms the teargas killed him, damaging his brain and skull. Another youth, Mohammad Rafiq Bangroo succumbs to his injuries a week after security forces allegedly thrash him

June 20:
Separatists call for Kashmir bandh to protest 'systematic killing of youth'. , Violence breaks out as an agitated mob returning from Bangroo's funeral clashes with the CRPF. Bangroo's 17-year-old cousin Javid Ahmad Malla is killed

June 21:
A separatistsponsored strike to protest Malla's death cripples normal life in the Valley. Authorities clamp prohibitory orders

June 23:
J&K CM Omar Abdullah blames "disruptive elements" for instigating innocent youth to attack security forces

June 24:
Authorities book hardline Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani under the stringent Public Safety Act and place moderate Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq under house arrest

June 25:
Shakeel Ahmad, 14, and Firdous Ahmad, 17, are killed after CRPF men fire at a group of people trying to set ablaze the police vehicle in Sopore

June 26:
Authorities order judicial probe into the deaths

June 27:
Bilal Ahmad Wani, 21, dies after the CRPF fires at a group of people, mostly children, protesting against the latest killings in Sopore. J&K law minister Ali Mohammad Sagar asks home minister P Chidambaram to rein in the paramilitary force

June 28:
Two people, including a nineyear-old kid, killed in CRPF firing at separate places in Sopore and Delina in north Kashmir

June 29:
Violence spreads to south Kashmir;three teenagers killed in Anantnag. Curfew extended to Baramulla and parts of Srinagar

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