Friday, August 27, 2010

The Economist - Banyan: Vale of tears


Vale of tears

In Kashmir freedom is much farther than a stone’s-throw away

OWAIS hardly looks like a serious danger to the security of India. Slender and frail, he says he is 17 but seems younger as he basks shyly in the praise of the men gathered in a garden in Srinagar, summer capital of Indian-ruled Kashmir. But he is proud to show off the scars and stitch-marks that cover his belly. He has just emerged from hospital, lucky to be alive. He took a bullet in an anti-Indian protest on August 2nd in Kupwara, some 90km (56 miles) away. His uncle died that day, one of more than 60 people, mostly young, killed in a wave of unrest that began on June 11th. Owais and those like him have presented the Indian government with a new and perhaps insoluble Kashmir crisis.
They are self-proclaimed “stone-pelters”, named after their weapon of choice. Well-organised—on Facebook, to a large extent—the pelters emerge at short notice to throw stones at police stations and other targets, and get shot at. In response to their protests much of the Kashmir valley that surrounds Srinagar has been shut down—both byhartals, or strikes, called by separatist leaders, and by government-imposed curfews. On most days, Srinagar is a ghost town of shuttered shops and empty streets. Paramilitaries point their rifles out from bunkers or lounge on street corners, idly tapping their lathis (heavy batons) on their padded legs. On the one or two designated “shopping days” each week, the traffic is gridlocked.
Setting the hartal “calendar” is Syed Ali Shah Geelani, an 81-year-old separatist leader. It is in his garden that Owais waits. When the old man emerges, he kisses the boy on both cheeks and the forehead, hugs him tight, and poses for a photograph with him. Mr Geelani seems a strange icon for a movement of teen-aged Facebookers. Few share his Islamist pro-Pakistan ideology. And many still seem to be ignoring his edict to give up throwing stones and stick to peaceful protest. But, unlike other political leaders, Mr Geelani has never wavered in his refusal to compromise with Indian rule. Sheer, cussed consistency has earned him a pivotal role. So have India’s past tactics to divide its opponents. More moderate separatists, who have engaged in “dialogue” with India, have had nothing to show for it, and ended discredited and compromised. This seems less clever than it did at the time. Now Mr Geelani ignores a call for talks from India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh.
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