Without Jobs, Kashmiris Set Their Sights On Army
22 February 2006
Anantnag: On a bright, sunny day nearly 5,000 young Kashmiris mass outside a heavily guarded Indian army camp. The men inside the barracks have nothing to fear. The gathering is not an angry rally against Indian rule in the disputed Himalayan territory where tens of thousands of people have been killed in a separatist revolt since 1989. On the contrary, braving militant threats, war-weary Kashmiris are queueing in hopes of impressing officers running an army recruitment drive, and bagging a job with the military. Most of those who assembled last week at the camp, ringed by snow-covered mountain peaks, said they were aware of threatened rebel retaliation but chose to ignore it. Many were unemployed and desperately in need of work. 'My old mother and two sisters are dependent on me. I am unemployed - that is why I am here. I believe life and death are in the hands of Allah,' said one would-be soldier, Irshad Ahmad, as he struggled for breath after being put through his paces. The numbers of young men attending the rally in Anantnag, south of the summer capital Srinagar, and other such events are being seen by the authorities as a sign that some degree of what they call 'normalcy' is returning to the Himalayan state. Last year, perhaps 2,000 turned up, the army says, and before that considerably fewer. But in this case 'normalcy' appears to mean poverty. 'The large number of youth who thronged the recruitment rallies is a clear indicator that job opportunity and economic compulsions are calling the shots,' an Indian army spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel V. K. Batra, told Reuters. A leading state lawmaker said 'skyrocketing' unemployment had left young Kashmiris desperate for any offer of work. 'Both central (federal) and state governments have failed on this front. There are no big industries in Kashmir and government jobs are limited,' said Mohammad Shafi, a member of the Congress party that heads the state's ruling coalition government. Officials say more than 300,000 people applied for just 5,000 jobs recently advertised by the state administration. REBEL THREATS The frontline rebel group, Hizbul Mujahideen, which has warned Kashmiris against joining the Indian forces, describes local recruitment as an Indian ploy to make the people of the region fight each other. 'The government is trying to create a civil war-like situation in Jammu and Kashmir (by employing Kashmiris),' the group said in a message recently published in local Urdu-language newspapers. 'The houses of those joining the forces will be locked. Their property will be confiscated and they will be liable to be killed,' it warned. But despite such threats, thousands of young Kashmiris have turned up at three recruitment camps run by the army. More than 8,000 people attended an event in the north of the state. 'This year the response is overwhelming, that is why we are extending the rally by two days,' said Colonel D. K. Nanda, an officer in charge of the Anantnag recruitment drive. Officials say separatist violence has declined in the turbulent region since nuclear rivals India and Pakistan, both of which claim the region, began a fresh attempt to resolve their differences a little over two years ago. But people are still killed in daily firefights and occasional bomb explosions in this breathtaking area of mountains and lakes where the violence has devastated the tourism-dependent economy. Last year, Kashmir had its best tourist season in years, with more than 600,000 mainly Indian visitors bringing much needed income. But the economy remains in tatters and in need of major infrastructure development. In the past rebels have killed or maimed local people working with the army or police - and their relatives - - along with those they believed were helping Indian forces put down the 16-year revolt by providing information on the rebel groups. Mohammad Yasin Rather, a local constable with the Indian Border Security Force, was shot dead last week at his home in Anantnag. 'We have suffered a lot. I want a job desperately, if death is my destiny nobody can save me,' 24-year-old Bilal Ahmad, another applicant, said. His elder brother, a militant, was killed by soldiers in a gunbattle three years ago.