Mutiny in the mountains

In Kashmir, a wave of peaceful mass protests against Indian rule has been put down with ferocity. Th

One afternoon in August this year, I left a magazine office near the East Village in New York after an interview, and made my way to Washington Square Park. It was there that I received a call I shall never forget. It was from my brother in Kashmir. “They have fired on the protesters,” he said. “Thirteen or fourteen people, and some say more, have been killed.”

A month later, on the flight home to Kashmir from Delhi, I gave up my attempts to read a news magazine as the pilot announced that we would be landing in Srinagar in a few minutes. I stared out of the window and somehow the joy of seeing Kashmir again reminded me of the melancholy of many departures, of how on every flight out of Kashmir I would stare out of the window as the plane took off, while below me there would be the receding houses growing smaller every moment, the paddies turning into neat green squares marked by their edges, the metalled roads connecting villages shrink ing into black lines, and in a few minutes Kashmir appearing as a pristine, serene bowl framed by snow-peaked mountains.

“Why do you Kashmiris have problems with India?” a policeman shouted at the artist

The day before, in Delhi, I had visited an exhibition of the work of a 20-year-old Kashmiri artist named Malik Sajad. Inside loops of sharp concertina wire, Malik had hung framed pictures of heavily militarised Kashmiri streets, with young unarmed protesters staring at soldiers. One of the cartoons depicted Gandhi being detained at a checkpost because he had forgotten his identity card.

An hour later, four bombs went off in central Delhi markets, killing 20 people. Indian Mujahedin, a jihadi group, sent emails to television channels and newspapers claiming responsibility for the attack as revenge against the 2002 Guj arat pogrom, in which Hindu extremist mobs had killed as many as 2,000 Muslims with support from the state government and police. The next day brought the news of the arrest of Malik Sajad, the cartoonist whose exhibition I had attended Shortly after the bombs exploded, Sajad had walked from the cultural centre to a nearby internet cafe where he was trying to email the daily cartoon to his editor at one of Kashmir's largest-selling English language newspapers, Greater Kashmir. The shopkeeper was suspicious of him and called the nearby office of the anti-terrorism wing of the Delhi Police. They arrived to drag Sajad by his neck across the road. A few hundred civilians gathered around to catch a glimpse of a supposed terrorist. "Why do you Kashmiris have problems with India?" a policeman shouted at the artist. Then they called the cultural centre, which confirmed who the young artist was and that he had been invited to exhibit his work in Delhi.

Arriving a few days later in Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital, Sajad spoke of his relief at finally being back at home. Once a beautiful medieval city known for its multi-storey wooden houses with latticework windows, exquisite Sufi shrines, ancient Hindu temples, and ornate houseboats on Dal Lake, Srinagar is now one of the world's most militarised cities. It has lost its nights to a decade and a half of curfews and de facto curfews. Srinagar now has empty streets, locked shops, angry soldiers and boys with stones. As I travel around Srinagar, I see a bridge, a clearing, or a nondescript building and know that men fell here, that a boy was tortured there. Yet whenever I return to my broken city, I always feel, like Malik, a sense of relief.

On the first Friday after I arrived home, the shops in Srinagar closed at noon. Lal Chowk, a crowded bazaar in the city centre, full of students, shoppers and soldiers, emptied eerily in a few minutes. A few blocks away, in the Maisuma area of Srinagar, Indian paramilitaries and police armed with automatic rifles and tear gas guns took positions in concrete bunkers and on street corners. A few thousand Kashmiris stood in Friday prayer along the half-mile row of modest brick houses and stores while police blocked the lanes joining Maisuma to the city centre, using loops of concertina wire.

After the prayers, Yasin Malik, a wiry man in his forties who lives in a decrepit mud and brick house, led the protest. In the winter of 1989, when a rebellion against Indian rule had broken out in Kashmir, Malik was then the 21-year-old commander of the armed group Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, which sought independence from India. In the mid-Nineties, after pro-Pakistan, Islamist militant groups attacked the Kashmiri nationalist JKLF and took over the anti-India insurgency, Malik renounced violence and became a self-styled Gandhian. Now he was leading another protest, with young and old chanting: "We Want Freedom! Go India! Go!" The tense soldiers looked on in silence.

"You are late," a college friend who worked at a bank nearby said to me. "You should have been here earlier."

He was referring to the protests, which ran from mid-July to mid-September and in which hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris had come out on the streets to agitate for freedom from Indian rule. What was most startling was that the protests were peaceful. Not a single bullet was fired on the Indian soldiers, and because of this the Islamist militants who had been fighting Indian forces for much of the past decade had suddenly become irrelevant. Kashmir, it seemed, had made an overwhelming transition from insurgent violence to Gandhian, non-violent protest. The message was clear, even on the posters of a coalition of separatist groups: Us Qaum Ko Shamsher Ki Haajat Nahin Padti; Ho Jis Ke Jawanoon Ki Khudi Ho Surat-e-Faulaad (The Nation Whose Youth Are Awake Needs No Swords).

The Indian soldiers and police responded to these peaceful protests in the only way they knew - with violence. Between 11 August, when a senior separatist leader, Sheikh Aziz, was killed in northern Kashmir while leading a protest along the Jhelum Valley Road, and mid-September, the police opened fire on and killed as many as 50 protesters and injured more than 700 in scores of incidents in Srinagar, in the towns of Baramulla and Bandipora and in various villages.

Political discontent has simmered in the Indian-controlled sector of Kashmir since partition in 1947, when Hari Singh, the Hindu maharajah of the Muslim-majority state, joined India after a raid by tribals from Pakistan. The agreement of accession that Singh signed with India in October 1947 gave Kashmir much autonomy; India controlled only defence, foreign affairs and telecommunications. But, in later years, India began to erode Kashmir's autonomy by imprisoning popularly elected leaders and appointing quiescent puppet administrators who helped extend the jurisdiction of the Indian supreme court over Kashmir.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars over control of the old princely state of Kashmir. In 1987, the government in Indian-controlled Kashmir rigged a local election, after which Kashmiris lost the little faith they had in India and began a secessionist armed uprising with support from Pakistan. The Indian military presence in Kashmir rose to half a million and by the mid-Nineties jihadi outfits from Pakistan began to dominate the rebellion. Although violence has fallen in the past few years and the number of active militants has reduced to fewer than 500, according to the Kashmir police, peace talks between India and Pakistan have made little progress. The exception, in April 2005, was the symbolic opening of a bus service across the Line of Control, the de facto border which has divided the two parts of Kashmir between India and Pakistan since the first war over the state in 1947.

Since 1990, the conflict has claimed as many as 70,000 lives - mostly of Kashmiri civilians and militants, as well as Indian soldiers and policemen - but the lessening violence after 2003 and increasing tourist flows from India have created an impression that Kashmir has been "pacified". The protests of this summer destroyed any illusion of peace.

They were provoked by the transfer, in May, of 100 acres of land by the Kashmir government, led by India's ruling Congress Party, to a trust that manages a Hindu pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave in the mountains of southern Kashmir. The cave, discovered by a Muslim shepherd in the mid-19th century, is associated with Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, and Hindus believe a phallic ice formation inside the cave is a manifestation of Shiva. The pilgrimage used to be a small affair of a few thousand pilgrims over a few weeks. Local Muslims provided the necessary support, setting up shops along the route, providing food supplies and helping to carry the old and weak on horsebacks into the high mountains. But from the mid-Nineties, India's emerging Hindu nationalists made strong efforts to turn the pilgrimage into a mega-event, an exercise in Hindu supremacy, using the presence of thousands of pilgrims as a sign of greater Indian control over Kashmir.

Many Kashmiri Muslims viewed the land transfer as a move towards Hindu hegemony, and in June thousands protested against it. The Kashmir government revoked the land transfer after five protesters had been shot. The Hindus in Jammu, the southern province of the state, then began counter protests; they attacked and burnt some houses owned by Muslims and blocked the only road connecting the Kashmir Valley with the Indian plains. Kashmiri apple growers, whose produce was rotting as the blockade stopped it from being transported to markets in Delhi, marched in protest to Pakistan. On 11 August, thousands of ordinary people joined the march on the Jhelum Valley Road, which connected Kashmir with the cities of Rawalpindi and Lahore before the partition of British India. That was when the Indian soldiers fired on the protesters, and my brother called me in New York.

The protests quickly transformed from being about a land dispute to being about freedom from Indian rule, and hundreds of marches followed, including a huge march on 22 August to the United Nations Observer Group office in Srinagar.

Most of the injured were brought to SMHS Hospital in Srinagar. There is a single poster on the walls of the casualty ward of a dignified old man with a beard and a Jinnah cap: Sheikh Abdul Aziz, the separatist leader, one of the first to be shot and killed by the Indian troops .

In a sanitised room at the hospital, I met Saleem Iqbal, a 41-year-old surgeon who heads the team of 30 doctors working on the casualty ward. Dr Iqbal, a soft-faced man with a black moustache, had been preparing his team for the worst since the latest wave of protests began. "I have worked here for 14 years and we expected the injured to be brought to the hospitals the moment the protests began. That is how it was in the early Nineties," he told me. At that time, when Kashmiris rebelled against Indian rule and millions came out on to the streets demanding freedom, Indian troops had opened fire, killing hundreds.

One of the doctors at the hospital told me that after the recent shootings he had “operated on 15 people but saved only five. I had to amputate the legs of young boys.” A few days after our meeting, I saw Dr Iqbal again at a fundraising event, where the Kashmiri middle class had gathered to raise money for ambulances and medicines for the injured who couldn’t afford them, including some of the boys whose legs had been amputated.

Not everyone was despondent. The recent protests have, for the first time since 1990, shifted Indian opinion on Kashmir. Many Indian writers, editors and journalists are beginning to discuss properly for the first time the possibility of an India without Kashmir. Vir Sanghvi, the celebrated former editor of India's major English daily, the Hindustan Times, wrote in the paper on 16 August: "I reckon we should hold a referendum in the Valley. Let the Kashmiris determine their own destiny. If they want to stay in India, they are welcome. But if they don't, then we have no moral right to force them to remain . . . It's time to think the unthinkable."

India traditionally described Muslim-majority Kashmir as an integral part of the nation, necessary to prove its claim to be a secular country in which Hindus and Muslims were equal citizens. But the claims of Indian plurality and secularism have been weakened by the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and especially by the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat.

However, these recent debates among the Indian intellectual elite reminded me of the many afternoons I have spent with friends in Srinagar coffee shops talking about Kashmir and India. Most of us were sure that India would never leave Kashmir. But something is changing, on both sides.

Many more lives could have been lost through September if the Kashmiri separatist leaders had not called on people to suspend the protests during Ramadan; the Indian government responded by lifting the curfew. But the protests were set to resume in October and a coordination committee with representatives from various separatist groups called on people to march en masse to Lal Chowk on 6 October. No one knew how the Indian troops would respond to another march.

On that morning, I woke up to the sound of birds chirping on the mulberry and chinar trees in the backyard of my house in southern Srinagar. Outside, the streets were silent; there were groups of paramilitaries standing with guns and bamboo sticks near the neighbourhood bunker. I sat on the lawn reading the Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh's Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, which is an account of the difficulties and impossibilities of walking around your own landscape in the face of conflict and occupation. Later, in the afternoon, I managed to get a curfew pass and rode with a journalist friend to Lal Chowk. Indian paramilitaries and soldiers used thick loops of barbed wire and walls of iron sheets to block almost every lane leading there. Three boys played cricket in a narrow lane off the main square.

I watched as paramilitaries stopped a red SUV coming towards us. I saw the drained faces of two men inside; the legs of a dead woman wrapped in floral sheet jutted out of a window. They were taking her home from a Srinagar hospital. The SUV was allowed to pass after a few minutes, but it somehow reinforced the omnipresence of death. In my two-mile journey back home that evening, I was forced to produce my curfew pass and identity card at ten different checkpoints. Driving through the silent streets was a reminder of how efficient India's military control of Kashmir had become: a city of more than a million people had been turned into an open prison because its people had planned to go on a peaceful march for freedom. Police vans had been driving through various Srinagar neighbourhoods warning people that those who defied the curfew would be shot.

As many as 70,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the past 20 years of armed conflict in Kashmir. That October day, the people of Srinagar stayed home to save many more from being shot and killed. But they stared in defiance from open windows, as their armed Indian jailers passed by in military vehicles.

India has rejected even moderate demands to remove some of the half-million Indian forces from civilian areas or to restore some of Kashmir's lost autonomy. There are parliamentary elections in India next year, and the exaggerated fear, for now, is that any party that concedes ground on Kashmir will lose votes. This means that, for the coming months, Kashmiris will remain on edge, angry and protesting, dying in their ones and twos.