The Indian controlled Kashmir region continues to simmer with no end to protests, clashes and killings.
And as Kashmir separatist leaders are arrested, young school students are joining street protests in their place, adding a new dimension to the ongoing conflict.
But despite growing causalities, the Indian government remains reluctant to open dialogue.
Bismillah Geelani reports from New Delhi.
In Kashmir’s Tral district, tens of thousands of people have gathered for the funeral of young militant leader, Sabzar Ahmad.
He was killed in a shootout with Indian forces last week. And the mourners here are angry. They’re shouting anti-Indian slogans, and demanding Azadi or Freedom.
“He gave his life for a great cause. He is a martyr,” Local leader Saifulah told the crowd. “He did his job and now it’s our responsibility to take his mission forward. Let’s refresh our pledge that we won’t stop until we free Kashmir from Indian occupation.”
A group of armed men wearing masks seem to appear from nowhere. They pay homage to their friend with gun salutes.
One spontaneously turns to the crowd and passionately pleads with them to understand why he joined the militants.
“We have been left with no other way. We are being forced to take up arms,” he exclaimed wildly. “I ask my elders what else can one do when there is such oppression, when the honour and dignity of our mothers and sisters is being violated, when our brothers are either killed or put behind bars to rot?”
Kashmir is a disputed territory. It has been the source of ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan since the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947.
Nearly 100,000 people have been killed in the region since the late 1980s, when an armed uprising against Indian rule triggered violent clashes. Those clashes have continued on and off for three decades.
Last July, this same town grieved for Burhan Wani, who had also become known as the poster boy of new militancy in Kashmir.
Sabzar continued Burhan’s legacy. And spokesperson for Indian Paramilitary forces Rajesh Yadav, says his death is a boon.
“The last two days have been great for us in North Kashmir and South Kashmir. We have eliminated 10 terrorists including Sabzar, who had replaced Burhan Wani,” announced Yadav. “This is a great achievement.”
Burhan’s killing last year sparked a chain of protests and clashes, which led to 150 deaths.
The region was under total security lockdown for nearly six months. Curfews controlled movement; businesses and educational institutions closed, and mobile and internet services were blocked.
Now, after Sazar’s death, the curfew and internet blockade has been reinstated.
Protesters are also back on the streets with greater intensity. And with separatist leaders behind bars and under house arrest, the protests now look very different. Children in school uniforms dominate the protests.
“First our grandfathers went through all this, and they were killed, and then our fathers and now our brothers and children are in the same situation and are being killed,” said Sixteen-year-old Shaista, one of the protesters. “How long can this go on? We won’t allow this anymore. And look at how cruelly they are treating the students, where else are students killed with bullets and pellets?”
Despite growing casualties, protesters are becoming more fearless.
They now jump between fighting Kashmiri militants and Indian forces, breaking the security cordon and helping militants flee.
Defence analyst Mani Chibber says this poses a serious challenge to Indian security forces.
“The big problem right now is that there is no leadership. It is almost as if these young boys and girls are out on the streets with a death wish. And they are taunting the Indian state that come, [saying] ‘we are ready to die let’s see how many of us you can kill’,” he said.
Indian Security forces are adopting new methods too.
Recently, an Indian army officer tied a Kashmiri civilian to the front of his vehicle and used him as a human shield, as he passed through an area under protestor control. Later the Army Chief announced an award for the officer, calling his act ‘innovative.”
Journalist Prem Shakar Jha says the Indian government has lost the moral high ground in Kashmir.
“If you lose the moral high ground, you lost it today in Kashmir completely, you are losing it with the intelligentsia in India and very soon you will lose it with the world. We have been destroyed in Kashmir, there’s no one behind us,” he commented.
In response to the worsening situation in Kashmir, countries like Iran and Turkey have offered to mediate between India and Pakistan to resolve the issue.
India has refused mediation, and won’t talk to either Pakistan or the Kashmiri youth.
But Kapil Kak, member of a Civil Society group Centre for Peace and Progress, who are trying to facilitate talks, believes the only way forward is through dialogue with all stakeholders.
“Three generations have seen this conflict. There has been failure on the part of central government in addressing the root problems of Kashmir. So we will keep confronting this,” explained Kak.
“We need to address [the] Jammu and Kashmir issue once for all in a political outreach which is sensitive, caring and people oriented.”