Kashmir: Rape and murder cases touch off anti-India anger

Residents suspect the involvement of widely resented security forces. But protests may not derail the relative peace of recent years.

By , Correspondent

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    A Kashmiri demonstrator shouts "we want freedom" next to a placard with the pictures of the two women allegedly raped and murdered by Indian security forces, during a protest in Shopian, near Srinagar Wednesday. Thousands of people participated in the march to protest the May 29th incident, according to officials.
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"Azadi!" – freedom! – yell the angry young men gathered in the road running through Shopian, an orchard-fringed village in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

Protests like this have spread across the state since the recent rape and murder of two young women here – and suspected involvement of security forces.

But as the shouts of youths here suggest, the demonstrations have become about more than justice for two murdered women. They have tapped into the continuing desire for freedom from Indian rule here in the country's only Muslim-majority state.

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Government response angers locals

Immediately after the bodies of two young Muslim women, Nilofer Shakeel and Asiya Jan, were found here on May 30, locals suspected the involvement of security forces from nearby bases.

Anger rippled through the state when, only days after the incident, the state's chief minister, Omar Abdullah, said medical tests indicated the women had been neither raped nor murdered. Later forensic tests showed that they had, and Mr. Abdullah ordered a high level judicial inquiry into the crimes.

But by then the murders had triggered statewide protests. At least two people were killed and hundreds wounded. In Shopian this week, the protests continue.

This week, authorities said they would follow the recommendations of an interim report from the inquiry and suspend four police officers for destroying evidence and "dereliction of duty." The final report is due at the end of the month.

In Shopian, people say they will continue to protest until the culprits are locked up. "So far, the authorities have done nothing to help us at all," says Shakeel Ahmed, Ms. Shakeel's wretched-looking husband as he sits at home. Nearby, village children have gathered to play with the couple's toddler.

Desire for independence persists

In recent years the Kashmir Valley – once described by former United States President Bill Clinton as the most dangerous place on earth – has been relatively peaceful. The calm came largely due to renewed peace talks between India and Pakistan, which both rule portions of Kashmir but claim it in its entirety, as well as the adoption by many separatist groups of nonviolent means of agitation.

But most people in the state still yearn for freedom from Indian rule. Last year, a government plan to transfer land to a Hindu shrine in the state sparked the biggest pro-independence protests since the early 1990s.

Any crime that is suspected to involve security forces – an omnipresent reminder of Indian rule – tends to be seized upon by separatist groups. Despite the relative calm, some 600,000 security forces remain stationed in Kashmir. Their presence is bitterly resented.

"After the transition from violence to nonviolence in the separatist movement there is no need for the deployment of so many security forces in the villages," says Yaseen Malik, a separatist leader and former fighter. "Why should they be deployed in civilian areas when there is no need of them now?"

Officials consider softening military presence

The government has made some concession to that view. On June 11, home minister P Chidambaram announced the government would phase out large numbers of troops in the state.

In an interview at his residence, Chief Minister Abdullah said he supported the withdrawal of troops from the state, but that it would take a long time.

The government has also agreed to review the need for a despised law that gives the Army in Kashmir special freedoms. Human rights groups say the law has led to innumerable abuses against Kashmiris, including rape, murder, and torture.

Interest in resuming peace talks

Malik, like many here, says there are additional reasons to hope that the vexed issue of Kashmir, which has caused three wars between India and Pakistan since partition, is moving higher up the global agenda.

Since Singh's Congress party won a second term in power in last month's elections, there have been hopes of renewed peace talks with Pakistan.

In his first address to Parliament since the vote, Mr. Singh said India would meet Pakistan "more than halfway," if Pakistan did more to tackle terrorism.

And last week, Singh said he was prepared to hold talks with Kashmiri separatists. "I have not given up hope on Jammu and Kashmir," he said. "We are willing to engage in dialogue with anyone who is ready to shun violence."

Analysts believe that India has been encouraged by many separatist leaders' move toward peace in recent years – and the success of recent state elections.

Separatists here have always encouraged Kashmiris to boycott polls. But in December, Kashmir held its most successful, peaceful state elections in years. In Srinagar, the center of last year's massive protests, the turnout was more than 20 percent; up from five percent in 2002.

Nudges from the US may also have played a part. President Barack Obama said recently that the US should try to help resolve the Kashmir dispute so that Pakistan can focus on terrorism in its northwest rather than tensions with India.

And William J. Burns, the under-secretary of state for political affairs, said the aspirations of the Kashmiri people should be taken into account in any political settlement.

Back in Shopian, Shakeel's gray-bearded father is trying to make his voice heard above protesters shouting for independence. "She was my daughter!" he shouts to foreign visitors leaving the village. "She was 22 years old!"

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