Curfew ignored as thousands continue to take to the streets after rebel’s killing and 30 civilians shot dead.
Zahid Rafiq, Al Jazeera
Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – With at least 30 civilians killed and dozens seriously wounded in firing by India’s armed forces, this disputed Himalayan region is again seething with rage.This time, however, the cause of Kashmiris’ rise in anger isn’t human rights violations by security forces, but the killing of a popular rebel commander, 22-year-old Burhan Muzaffar Wani.
The trigger for this new upsurge of protests is significant because the resistance movement to Indian rule in Kashmir had completely shifted to a non-violent discourse over the past decade, with militancy becoming a shadow act far removed from the lives of ordinary people.
India and Pakistan both control parts of Muslim-majority Kashmir, but each claims the region in its entirety. The nuclear-armed South Asian rivals have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir.
While 21 of the civilian deaths occurred in south Kashmir, the first killing in the capital happened late on Sunday, July 10. Police fear it could raise the temperature of protests in Srinagar.
“We were hopeful of getting things in control today [Sunday] but … we hardly seem to be in control anywhere,” a senior police officer stated, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“South Kashmir is completely out of our hands and now Srinagar and the north are so tense that we can’t predict what will happen on Monday.”
With thousands coming out all over the restive region to mourn Wani’s killing, protests against Indian rule appear to be gaining momentum.
Until Friday, Kashmir was in a festive mood after Eid al-Fitr. But all that changed immediately after news spread of Wani’s killing – along with two other fighters that evening in Verinag, in south Kashmir.
On Saturday, June 9 thousands of people attended Wani’s funeral prayers in Tral, making it the largest funeral in Kashmir in the past two decades.
“We had made preparation for the areas we expected trouble in, but this time people came out in fringe places and we had not prepared for that,” Indian-held Kashmir’s intelligence chief, S M Sahai, told reporters in the summer capital, Srinagar.
As the number of dead rises, people’s rage on the streets is also growing, with demonstrations and stone-throwing happening throughout the region.
According to Indian police, more than a dozen police stations, posts, and paramilitary camps have been attacked, many set ablaze, with one policeman killed after his vehicle was pushed into the Jehlum river.
Despite a strict curfew and restrictions imposed in Kashmir since Saturday, people have continued to take to the streets, shouting slogans, and throwing stones at Indian security forces.
Streets throughout Kashmir are punctuated with burning tires and logs of wood erected by the youth to stop police and paramilitary vehicles.
“India killed Burhan because he was a militant and had a gun. Then they killed 17 Kashmiris even though they were civilians and had no guns,” said protester Mushtaq Ahmad Dar in Srinagar.
“They will kill us no matter how we ask for our independence, and I would rather be killed with a gun in my hand than without one.”
Dar said he didn’t come out to the streets to protest Wani’s killing, but to show solidarity and vent his anger over the subsequent civilian killings.
While the Indian police and paramilitary forces say they are exercising maximum restraint, doctors attending the wounded at hospitals tell another story.
A medical emergency was declared in the region with regularly scheduled surgeries suspended to deal with the inflow of the wounded.
“Almost all the bullet injury patients that came to us were hit by bullets in the upper halves of their body. Six of our patients are critical,” said Dr Nazir Choudhary, of Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital.
“And many of the injured by pellets have been hit in their eyes, something that could impair their vision for life.”
The state government headed by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti expressed grief over the civilian killings and promised to investigate. She also appealed to people not to demonstrate on the streets.
“We tried to address the Kashmir issue peacefully and urged India to respond peacefully, but they have repeatedly shown an unwillingness to deal with the people’s aspirations for independence,” said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a leader of the separatist group Hurriyat.
“The Indian government squeezed the political space and any peaceful way to find a solution so much that people’s anger is finding a vent on the streets again.”
After the initial phase of the armed rebellion in Kashmir in the 1990s, the participation of Kashmiris in the movement dropped significantly and instead was predominantly made up of Pakistani fighters.
But Burhan helped change that. He became a rebel at 15 after he and his brother were allegedly beaten up by the counter-insurgency wing of police. Unlike his peers, he shunned masks and appeared on social media, posting selfies of his life fighting against Indian rule. He soon became the youthful face of the new militancy in Kashmir.
“He [Wani] had not been to Pakistan for arms training, he was from an educated and well-off family and could have easily become a doctor or an engineer,” Farooq said.
“He chose to become a militant because he didn’t see India responding to any other means of dissent against its illegal rule here. This time India is unable to claim that these Kashmiri militants were sponsored and tutored by Pakistan. They are only reacting to the occupation in their country.”
People on the streets, however, express dissatisfaction with the resistance leadership, too, calling it out on the lack of new ideas and “inability to deliver politically on the sacrifices of the people”.
“Lakhs of people are on the streets and 20 people have been killed in two days, thousands are injured. What more are we to do than this?” said Abid Shafi, a protester in Srinagar’s Natipora area.
“They have no strategy, no plan. Each time people rise against the Indian state seeking their rights, our leaders let it die down after dozens are killed. In 2010, more than 100 young men were killed in Srinagar city alone. There was no tangible outcome.”
Asked about the criticism, Farooq said he accepted that his group had been unable to deliver on promises of separatism, citing regular arrests of its leadership.
The summer in Kashmir, meanwhile, could be another bloody and anger-filled one.