Street Riots Greet Kashmir Peace Talks20 February 2010
Srinagar: At one o'clock, he is behind the dusty shelves of the small shop he runs with his father. A few phone calls and an hour later, he is walking through the streets of Srinagar's Nowhatta district, two friends in tow. Fashionable but scuffed shoes, turned-up dirty jeans, a ring on each finger and a chequered Arab-style scarf, Mehraan, 22 and already a veteran, knows where he is going: to the police checkpoint on the Gojwara Road. 'It's going to be big. We're under a lot of pressure, but it's going to be big,' he says as he strides through narrow lanes, past food stalls, rubbish-strewn wasteland, and open drains full of human and animal waste. Mehraan is a 'stone-pelter', as they are now known in the Indian part of Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan state. For weeks now, it has been the same routine. An incident sparks a surge in demonstrations. There are injuries and finally a teenager is killed, hit by a teargas canister or shot. The demonstrations turn to riots, then repression brings a fragile calm. Until another cycle starts. This week will see the first high-level official talks between India and Pakistan since the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008. The two states have fought three wars over Kashmir, which was split between them shortly after independence in 1947. The Mumbai attackers came from Pakistan, and New Delhi is demanding that terrorism be the focus of the forthcoming talks. Islamabad, however, wants to restart a broader dialogue, one that would include the future of Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state. By the standards of Kashmir, where at least 50,000 people have died in a 20-year civil conflict, the current violence is relatively mild. Last week, after days of protests and curfews, police arrested scores of young men. Many more went underground. This was the 'pressure' Mehraan had referred to. So the rocks thrown by Mehraan and his friends have a wider resonance. Enemies of India claim the violent demonstrations in the city reveal the iniquity of the 'occupation' of Kashmir and the commitment of locals to independence or accession to Pakistan. Enemies of Pakistan dismiss men like Mehraan as being in the pay of politicians and Pakistan's intelligence services. 'The stone-pelters are being paid and being used by people who want to keep things on the boil and to create the impression that things are not OK [in Kashmir],' said Kuldeep Khoda, who runs the state police force. Mehraan and his friends tell a different story, however. As he strode through the rundown Nowhatta, collecting fellow stone-pelters as he went, the shopkeeper said he started attacking security forces when his cousin was shot dead two years ago. Then he was arrested and, he claims, tortured. Since then, he says, he has wanted two things: 'Azadi' (freedom) and 'blood for blood'. Alongside him, a 14-year-old says he started a few weeks ago when his friend was killed, allegedly by security forces. 'These things happen and nothing is changed and then they happen again,' he said. In fact, many things have changed in Kashmir in recent years. Though clashes between Islamic militants and security forces occur weekly – last week four extremists died in two separate incidents – a fragile peace has come. The resultant economic growth cannot satisfy the demands of a population of whom 62% are under 30 and about half are under 25 and unemployed. Drug abuse, suicides and psychological disorders are rife among the young. 'The reasons for the stone-pelting are mixed,' said Ali Mohammed Sagar, one of two parliamentary representatives from Mehraan's neighbourhood of Nowhatta. 'Sometimes it is genuine resentment at the government, sometimes it is just to have a bit of action after Friday prayers. Sometimes political groups and parties have egged on people. And unemployment is of course a serious problem.' Another issue may be generational. Political leaders who were once firebrands are less vocal now. A moderate local government was elected last year in a poll that saw a huge turnout. It is composed of 'hypocritical collaborators', says Sohail, a 31-year-old government official who leads a band of 50 teenage stone-throwers in weekly demonstrations. Sohail argues that, if stone-pelting does not succeed in forcing more autonomy and a milder security regime for Kashmiris, then the 'armed struggle', which in effect ended around five years ago, will start again. As the shadows of the snow-topped mountains lengthened across Srinagar at 5pm, Mehraan had gathered his troops. A warm-up on a pair of policemen near the main mosque, who fled, then the two or three dozen teenagers, scarfs over their faces, advanced towards the Gojwara checkpoint, gathering bricks and chunks of rocks and hurling them at the policemen, who hurled them back and threatened to fire CS gas. For 20 minutes, the battle continued. Police reinforcements arrived. The teenagers evaded pursuers easily in the narrow side-streets. The stones rained down, clanging off the armoured trucks. The fight continued as dusk turned to dark. A policeman paused for a moment to answer a question as to when the riot might end. 'I don't know,' the sergeant said. 'It is out of our hands.'