Young Kashmiris step away from militancy

The contested state was relatively peaceful during polls, which ended Wednesday, largely due to a new generation using technology, not weapons, to protest Indian control.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    New tactics: On Wednesday, some Kashmiris protested elections, rejected by separatist leaders.
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The Indian establishment is probably in no mood to thank Hamid Bashir, considering he has spent the past few months pelting security forces with rocks and chanting anti-Indian slogans.

But like curfews and candidates, Mr. Bashir has also played a part in the relative peace that prevailed throughout month-long state elections that ended here Wednesday.

The would-be revolutionary wants India out of Kashmir. Yet, unlike members of the previous generation, he is not a militant. Instead of picking up a gun, Bashir, who asked that his real name not be used due to his political activities, has used text messages to create "flash mob" protests – instant rallies organized through cellphone messages – and posted videos on YouTube of unarmed protesters being shot, allegedly by Indian forces.

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Even as India and Pakistan rattle sabers after last month's massacre in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), the 20-something's generation has helped Kashmir – the contested state at the heart of the two countries' enmity – take a historic step back from violence.

"There is an overwhelming understanding that the gun will not solve the problem now," says Muzammil Jameel of the Indian Express, who runs a workshop for young journalists in Srinagar.

This understanding has built gradually since the insurgency against Indian rule began in 1989. Kashmir is split between India and Pakistan, though both countries claim the state in full. The relatively high turnout in the seven phases of the election in Indian Kashmir, which began Nov. 17, is seen partly as Kashmiris' desire to focus their politicians on bread-and-butter issues long overlooked in the grand rhetoric of the freedom movement.

Yet it is among the generation just now reaching adulthood that this departure from the ideology of militancy is most acute. The circumference of their lives has been bound by violence, even defined by it.

Since 1989, police checkpoints of machine guns and barbed wire have become Srinagar waymarks, as ubiquitous as cinemas or bakeries. At the height of the insurgency in the 1990s, boys sat in family gardens, counting the crackle of gunfire – able to tell the difference in pitch between the militants' AK-47s and the Indians' bolt-action rifles.

Iqbal Ahmed, now a PhD student at a top Indian university, spent his youth playing "militants and policemen" – Kashmir's version of cops and robbers. "Everyone wanted to be the militants," he says, smiling.

But the romance of miltancy is fading. Kashmir remains a battleground. The Indian crackdown has only worsened. Moreover, 9/11 altered the world's attitudes toward militancy. "Our generation has been witness to all these things going on," Mr. Ahmed says. Because of that, he adds: "There is a change in thinking."

That change has been most apparent during the past six months, when protests – some hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris strong – have convulsed the state. When the state government donated land to a Hindu charity in June, many people in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley saw it as a ploy engineered in New Delhi to undermine Kashmir's autonomy.

Ahmed (who also asked that his real name be withheld for security reasons) and Bashir were among the throngs, exhorting friends to join the rallies with patriotic texts and filming the events with their camera phones. The Indian response was jittery. Shortly after the protest began, it blocked all text messages in the state. In July and August, Indian forces also resorted to "excessive use of force" to disperse the rallies, shooting and killing 25, according to Amnesty International.

Ahmed still has a video of one of the dead on his phone – a man carried away on a motorbike after allegedly being shot by Indian security forces. Though Indian officials have not commented on every death, they claim they have been provoked in some instances and falsely blamed in others.

To be sure, Ahmed and Bashir are not be mistaken for Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi. Sitting in a Srinagar restaurant, they conspire like Bolsheviks, talking about the videos, CDs, and photos they have made and e-mailed to highlight what they see as Indian brutality. Bashir talks about the nights this summer he spent throwing rocks at police.

But they are not talking about taking up guns – at least not yet. Kashmiris "want to show the world that this is a movement for their own right to self-determination, and they can do it in a peaceful way," says Ahmed.

There have been results. Eventually, the land donation was rescinded and the state government fell – leading to this month's elections. This summer's controversy "revealed a new generation" of Kashmiri activists, says Salman Haider, a former foreign secretary of India. "They forced the government to back down."

Yet in Srinagar, frustration mounts. India's heavy response to the protests has antagonized many Kashmiris. "If you make no distinction between a suicide bomber and a kid shouting slogans on the street, you are pushing him toward something more dangerous," says Mr. Jameel, the journalist.

There is the sense that this is a window of opportunity, he and others agree. Hashim Saeed, who also asked that his real name be withheld because of his involvement in pro-independence activities, says much is still uncertain.

"What we are seeing today is the hope that ... the international community is ready to listen to the aspirations of the people if we resort to nonviolence," he says. "There is every kind of possibility," he says. "If people fail to address this problem, this nonviolent generation will be forced to think otherwise."

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