(By BETWA SHARMA)
SRINAGAR: Before Feb. 9, the anniversary of the death of Muhammad Afzal, a Kashmiri who was hanged for his role in a 2001 attack on Parliament, the state government took its usual precautions to head off unrest. A curfew was imposed, Internet access was cut off, and additional police officers were posted around Srinagar.
The anniversary passed quietly as residents observed a three-day strike called by local leaders who want an independent Kashmir. But behind closed doors, young Kashmiris were increasingly talking of violence, frustrated by the inability to protest in the streets and the futility of bashing India on the Internet and losing faith in separatist leaders.
While many Kashmiris don’t want to see a revival of the violent struggle for freedom that raged during the 1990s, causing tens of thousands of deaths and disappearances, there is a growing sentiment among those in their 20s that violence can be justified when they have no peaceful means to express their dissent.
“I don’t think anyone wants to ever be violent, but it is natural if India keeps provoking us over and over again,” said Amir, 20, a college student who requested that his first name be withheld to avoid his being identified by the police.
Mr. Amir lamented the absence of “true leaders” in the valley. “But if a genuine leader emerges, I will follow his plans whether these are nonviolent or not,” he said.
This kind of talk from a disillusioned youth, against a backdrop of a series of bold and targeted attacks by militants in Kashmir last year, have raised concerns among Indian Army and government officials, as well as local residents, that the Kashmir Valley could see a revival of the violence of the past, especially as the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan changes the security configurations in the region.
For now, a small number of young people are participating in armed conflict. But over the past two years, local newspapers have documented several cases of well-educated young men from middle-class backgrounds picking up guns. And last year, militant attacks caused 61 deaths among the Indian security forces, the highest since 2010.
Figures from the Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi also show that 10 militants were killed this year as of Feb. 16, compared with two such deaths in the first two months of 2013, a period that normally sees few armed encounters because of the heavy snow.
The figures don’t include the recent death of a young militant in Pulwama, a south Kashmir town, which prompted the state authorities to impose a three-day curfew after “miscreants” attempted to incite violence, said Manoj Pandit, a Kashmir police spokesman. The curfew was lifted Sunday.
Parvez Imroz, a human rights lawyer, described the youth in Kashmir as “choked.”
“Young people in Kashmir are frustrated and really feel humiliated all the time,” he said. “Now what form that takes we will have to see.”
The state government has given mixed signals over its concerns about youths resorting to violence. Last year, the state’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, said the militants being killed at that time were “qualified,” which he described as “a matter of concern.” But in a recent interview, Mr. Abdullah’s political secretary, Tanvir Sadiq, said further investigations indicated that educated young people were not turning into militants.
Mr. Sadiq acknowledged that the state government limits movements during times of unrest to prevent the loss of life, but he denied that such restrictions block free speech. “Go on to Twitter and Facebook and see what people write,” he said.
Even if the Internet is available for protests, young people in Kashmir want more effective ways to express their anger at the Indian government. Mr. Amir and Farooq, another college student who asked to be identified only by his surname, said that outdoor protests were no longer an option since the government had crushed rallies in 2008 and 2010 in which tens of thousands of Kashmiris marched in the streets.
And even those demonstrations, they said, did not yield any results except to claim the lives of young people who had clashed with security forces.
One way the Kashmir government could head off agitation among Kashmiri youth is to create jobs in a state that does not have a strong private sector. Mr. Sadiq acknowledged that there was frustration over the lack of jobs in Kashmir, with 400,000 unemployed educated youth in a population of more than 12 million, and these numbers are rising with each batch of fresh college graduates.
The state government, he said, was engaging with corporations to hire college graduates for positions outside Kashmir, as well as implementing programs to provide training for vocational jobs and make business loans available to young entrepreneurs at low interest rates.
“Don’t forget that we are emerging from 20 years of insurgency,” said Mr. Sadiq. “We have a made a slow but positive start.”
Observers in the Kashmir Valley also said that signing up to become a militant simply isn’t that easy. Shamim Mehraj, editor of the daily newspaper Kashmir Monitor, said the experience gained over the past 20 years by Indian security forces and the increased surveillance by the state government together seem to have discouraged young people from lining up to become militants.
Defense analysts say that the revival of militancy in Kashmir, and youth participation in it, depended on one critical factor: Whether Pakistan uses the American troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan later this year as an opportunity to renew its attention to its claim on Kashmir.
But Mr. Amir and Mr. Farooq said that they wanted Kashmir to be free of both Pakistan and India and that Kashmiris would have to wage their own battle for independence.
That dream of independence seems to be further out of reach as separatist leaders offer no vision or road map, they say. Mr. Amir said the three-day strike to mark the anniversary of Mr. Afzal’s death only caused losses for business and disrupted exam schedules for college students.
Mr. Amir dismissed the separatist leaders as men looking to gain power and wealth. “But most Kashmiris have only lost loved ones, without seeing any change in their lives,” he said.
Correction: February 24, 2014
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this post misidentified the person who died in Pulwama. That person was a young militant, not Manoj Pandit, the Kashmir police spokesman.