TODAY marks the 48th consecutive day of protests in Jammu & Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. Young Kashmiri men have been on the streets calling for independence from India and throwing stones at security forces. Indian security forces have responded with tear gas and shotguns that fire small-bore pellets instead of buckshot.
A strict curfew has also been imposed across the Kashmir valley, which includes Srinagar, the region’s largest city. So far, 66 civilians and two police officers have been killed in the violence. Why are Kashmiris protesting?
The region has been disputed since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Both sides claim the territory and have fought three wars over it. Kashmir has been living under India’s Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gives special powers to the army, since the eruption in 1990 of an armed insurgency that was covertly supported by Pakistan. Some 40,000 people have been killed since. Even in the relatively peaceful past decade, unrest has flared up, most notably in the summers of 2008 and 2010. The current protests started on July 9th after Indian security forces killed Burhan Wani, a young and charismatic Islamist militant. Resentment had been building for months. Kashmiris worried when Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014 that his national government would make life difficult for Muslims. At state elections later that year, the local Peoples Democratic Party formed a coalition with the BJP, leaving them feeling betrayed. Wani’s killing has mobilised a generation that had grown up under what it sees as an illegitimate Indian occupation.
The result has been a seven-week cycle of violent protests and retaliatory action by the police and paramilitary forces. Their supposedly non-lethal pellets have blinded dozens and injured hundreds. Shops and businesses have remained closed since the protests started, either under curfew orders or because of calls for strikes from separatist leaders. Many Kashmiris have not left their homes for weeks. Few expect the situation to improve any time soon, despite soothing words this week from Mr Modi and a visit to the region by India’s home minister.An obstacle to any lasting solution is India’s insistence on seeing Kashmir through the prism of its rivalry with Pakistan. The Indian government’s immediate reaction to this summer’s unrest was to accuse its neighbour of meddling. In fact, Wani was a home-grown insurgent; the young men on the streets are locals. Unemployment is widespread and economic opportunities are few. The state was also promised special status, guaranteeing autonomy, in India’s constitution. And many Kashmiris now want more: a survey in 2010 by Chatham House, a think-tank, found overwhelming support for independence. Kashmiris are at best ambivalent about their attachment to India. Until the government recognises their demands, the anger is unlikely to dissipate.