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A journey into the heart of Kashmir’s crisis

 

Zahid Rafiq


Bumdoor/Anantnag, Indian-administered Kashmir – Aside from the black ravens that kraaw from every tin roof in Kawpoor, there is complete silence.

It is early morning on Wednesday and for a while it seems that no one lives here. Doors and windows are closed. There are only the ravens, dozens and dozens of them, and the silence.

It is in this Kawpoor neighbourhood, whose name literally means the abode of crows, of Bumdoor village – where clusters of small houses lie imposingly between orchards, streams and vast paddy fields – that the rebellion that has overtaken the whole of Kashmir in the past week started last Friday night.

On a narrow path that leads from the main road to the houses, a rectangle of stones, sticks and yarn, with black and green flags at the corners, marks the spot where the 22-year-old Kashmiri rebel fighter Burhan Wani was killed. It has become a place of pilgrimage.

“No one ever visited here till last week. Nothing ever happened in this village,” says Showkat Ahmad, a 24-year-old engineering student. “But for the last five days, more than a thousand people from all over visit here every day to see where Burhan was martyred.”

Ahmad says the gun battle in which Burhan was killed was the first he had ever witnessed in this quiet village. Everyone seems surprised by it, and among the villagers there is an uncomfortable silence. They see accusations in the eyes of those who visit.

“They think we didn’t try to save them … that we didn’t throw stones at the soldiers and give cover to Burhan and the two other martyrs,” says Ahmad. “But we had no idea they were here and by the time we knew it, it was very late.”


READ MORE: Rage in Kashmir over killing of youth by Indian army 


The villagers say that the Indian soldiers and the police started arriving in the village at around noon on Friday, but they behaved in such a way that no one suspected something was amiss.

Abdul Gani Dar lives just across from the house where the three fighters had spent the night on Thursday and the day on Friday. It is a large house, a section of which belonged to an uncle of one of the fighters killed in the gun battle, Sartaj Ahmad Sheikh.

“The soldiers told us that Mehbooba Mufti [the chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir] was coming to the nearby orchard to inaugurate something. And we went on with our day at the fields and in the orchards,” he says.

By 4pm, more than a hundred Indian soldiers and police had cordoned off the Kawpoor neighbourhood. Some had taken positions in the partially built houses, some in empty cement drains, others in public bathrooms or behind trees.

“At around 5.30pm, Sheikh was the first to walk out of the gates of the house. He was shot dead right there,” says a neighbour who asked not to be named. “A few moments later, Burhan and Parvez – the two other militants – emerged from the house and they ran for around 25 metres and then they too were shot dead.”

Soon after the three were killed, hundreds of villagers came out and clashed with the police. Scores were wounded.

By evening, when the news had spread that one of those killed was Burhan Wani, the Hizb-ul Mujahideen commander who had been widely credited with reviving armed resistance to Indian control of the disputed region, people began to come out on to the streets across Indian-administered Kashmir.

The face of the armed rebellion

Wani had picked up a gun in 2010 as a 15-year-old boy. But unlike other fighters, he did not choose an alias or conceal his identity. Instead, he posted pictures and videos of himself on social media platforms such as Facebook and, in so doing, appealed to a new generation of Kashmiris, bringing the armed resistance back into the public imagination. Wani became a household name.

On Saturday morning, an estimated 200,000 people attended his funeral prayers in Tral. By the time he was buried, Indian-administered Kashmir was in the throes of yet another rebellion.

On Saturday, the first day of the uprising, at least 15 civilian protesters were killed and more than 200 wounded in firing by the Indian armed forces.

According to Indian police, police stations, posts and military camps were attacked, with many set ablaze.

A curfew was imposed in all four districts of the southern part of the region, the phone network and the internet was shut down.

 Indian government forces guard the deserted main road during a curfew following violence [Yawar Nazir/Getty Images]

Into the darkness

A kind of darkness has descended on Indian-administered Kashmir, punctuated by the sounds of gunshots and ambulance sirens. The south of the region has been at the heart of that darkness.

For five days no journalists could make it here: afraid not only of the Indian forces but also of angry residents who believe the Indian media has distorted their stories.

Myself and a colleague, working with an Indian newspaper, became the first journalists to travel through the southern part of the region, along stretches of highway and interior roads controlled by young civilian protesters and through major towns under a curfew imposed by hundreds of Indian troops.

Along our route, house windows are shattered. Stones, tree trunks and rocks litter roads smeared orange by the bricks young boys throw at the Indian forces.


READ MORE: Protests in Kashmir despite curfew


At midday on Wednesday, a strict curfew is in place. Indian forces stand in small groups along the roads or sit on the pavements, making sure that nothing moves. An elderly couple trudge along the road, each carrying a sack.

“Were you throwing stones yesterday?” an Indian soldier asks the old man.

“No, I have to take my wife to hospital. She has fever and urine infection,” he replies.

“I think I saw you throwing stones yesterday. Now you try to appear all old and feeble but yesterday there were dozens of old men with white beards throwing stones,” the soldier tells him.

A district administration officer in Anantnag, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that such a curfew is intended to pressure people into pleading with those protesting to stop so that the curfew might be lifted.

“That is the way that has been decided. Starve them. Let the parents beg their young sons to give up and we could return to normality,” the officer said.

Kashmiri protesters throw stones at police during clashes in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir [Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times via Getty Images]

‘I was bleeding and crying and they beat me with sticks’

In the post-operation ward of the Anantnag District Hospital, 17-year-old Mohammad Saeem’s cries pierce the stale air. He is pleading with his brother to cut the plaster on his leg.

“I am in pain. I am in pain,” he sobs.

Saeem was shot by the police on Monday. Three bullets hit his left leg, shattering the bones in his foot and shin.

On another bed, across the aisle from Saeem is 46-year-old Masooda, a mother of four daughters, the youngest of whom is seven.

She endures her pain quietly. Her hip hurts, she says, and so does her back and her shoulders.

“I was walking in our lane in Ashajipora when the police and the CRP [the Central Reserve Police Force] came and I tried to run but I fell down in pain,” Masooda says.

A bullet pierced her upper thigh and then, she says, police came and beat her, her husband and two of her daughters.

“I was bleeding and crying and many of them came and put me in a cart that was there and then they beat me with sticks from all sides. Then they overturned the cart and tried to drag me into one of the houses while they kept beating me,” she says.

Her two daughters and husband were beaten as they tried to protect her, she adds.

She doesn’t remember how she got to the hospital.

Of the roughly 30 patients in the ward, eight are women and the oldest among them is 79-year-old Sara Begum.

She says that she was beaten by local police officers who came to her home in the Goriwan neighbourhood looking for her youngest son, a known protester.

Her right leg is swollen and bruised from the ankle to the knee. Her other leg has 13 stitches.

“They beat me up as if they couldn’t see that I was a sick old woman. One of them spread me on the floor and climbed on my chest,” she murmurs.

Her grandson, Mohammad Asif, says the policemen beat her with a wooden meat-tenderiser that they found lying around.

“They beat up all the women in the house. They stripped my 12-year-old sister completely naked,” says another grandson, 15-year-old Umar. “I wish I was in the house, I only wish. For three nights, I have not slept. The image of my sister naked haunts me. It won’t let me sleep. For the last three days, I have only thought of murdering the policemen who stripped my sister.”

With each story like this, along with the well known protesters who the police lock up every time an uprising seems imminent, hundreds such as Umar are moved to join the protests for the first time in their lives.

Outside the hospital I meet Zubair, a volunteer at a free medical camp. In the middle of our conversation about the differences in the protests this time, he absent-mindedly lifts his blue T-shirt to scratch at the small holes made by the pellet guns the Indian forces use to contain the protests.

“This time,” he says, “people had no demands. Nothing … they did not seek a reform in a law, a probe in a case, nothing at all. It was a mourning of Burhan’s death or rather a celebration of Burhan’s life. But more than that,” he says, “it was the time we repeated the word Azadi [freedom] again.”

But the question remains whether, as in 2008 and 2010, a fragile normalcy will again settle upon this restive region or if, this time, things will be any different.

As of now, with no other response to the people’s rebellion from the Indian government other than force and with a lack of ideas among the region’s resistance leadership, the past week – with at least 35 civilians killed and more than 1,600 seriously wounded – appears to be yet another dark chapter in the book of Kashmir’s recent history.

SCO heralds winds of change in South Asian security

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MK Bhadrakumar
May 27th, 2016
[Original Article]

Membership in Shanghai Cooperation Organization will provide India and Pakistan a rare opportunity of co-habitation to kick-start a normalization process that eluded them for six decades. As a vista of unprecedented scale of interaction in security cooperation opens up, the two neighbors are likely to improve their ties

The foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) who met at Tashkent Tuesday recommended to the summit meeting of the grouping slated to be held on June 23 in the Uzbek capital the signing of a memorandum of understanding granting membership to India and Pakistan.

For all purposes, the process of inducting the two South Asian countries as SCO members has touched the finish line.It was in September 2014 that India formally applied for full membership. The SCO had granted ‘observer’ status to India and Pakistan ten years ago in 2005.

To be sure, Asian security and regional power dynamics is poised for a historic makeover. India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. They bring in a staggering 1500 million population under SCO’s canopy.

With their induction, SCO territory reaches the waters of the Indian Ocean and the grouping stance akimbo as a compelling presence on the edges of the Persian Gulf. Suffice it to say, the SCO’s transformation as a security organization takes a big leap forward.

The SCO will take up Iran’s membership question as soon as the formalities of India and Pakistan’s induction are completed. Conceivably, by the end of the decade, Iran will also have joined the SCO as full member.

Traditionally, China focused on SCO’s activities in the economic sphere, but lately, it shares Russia’s interest in the grouping’s profile as a security organization. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at the Tashkent meeting, “The SCO has become a paradigm of global and regional cooperation with great vitality and significant influence, and serves as a model of efficient cooperation by paying equal attention simultaneously to economic development and security cooperation.”

No doubt, growing tensions between China and the US play a part here. Wang can take immense satisfaction that the meeting in Tashkent adopted a communique voicing support for the Chinese stance in the South China Sea dispute.

Taking a swipe at Washington (and Tokyo), the SCO foreign ministers strongly opposed “outsiders’ interference” and attempts to “internationalize” the dispute.

This is the first time that SCO lined up to support China in its hour of need. There is poignancy insofar as China is the recipient here. The SCO support takes away some of the sting of the G-7 barbs voiced at the summit meeting in Japan. In geostrategic terms, SCO support has much greater relevance than G-7 beating distant drums.

The point is, SCO stance is a consensus that India too eventually comes to share. The draft memoranda adopted at Tashkent on Tuesday – with informal consultation and concurrence of the Indian government – commits New Delhi to mandatorily join the relevant conventions and internal documents that exist within the SCO framework.

In relation to South China Sea dispute, India too has been drifting away from the US-Indian Joint Vision Statement on Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean issued last year in New Delhi in January during the state visit by President Barack Obama.

The joint communique issued after the annual trilateral Russian-Indian-Chinese foreign-minister level meeting in Moscow two months ago decided to hold joint focused discussions later this year in regard of South China Sea situation.

Again, India held back from responding to recent American urgings for the two navies to undertake “joint patrols” in South China Sea, although Pentagon officials voiced confidence that India would join the bandwagon.

Equally, SCO’s rapid transformation as a security organization can be seen against the backdrop of the New Cold War stand-off between Russia and the US. The guarantee that India, Pakistan and Iran will definitely refuse to countenance deployment of US missile defense systems can only work to Russia’s advantage in maintaining the global strategic balance.

Russia and China are conscious of the imperative need to offer to Iran an enduring matrix (through SCO membership) that strengthens its wherewithal to retain its “strategic autonomy” vis-à-vis the West.

Indeed, Iran’s SCO membership also helps preserve the strategic balance in the Middle East where traditional US military presence is being steadily augmented with 3 NATO powers lately setting up military bases – France in the UAE, Britain in Bahrain and Turkey in Oman – and NATO too inserting as a provider of security and expanding its footprints through various partnership formats, including in Iraq.

In a fundamental sense, therefore, Russian-Chinese entente is injecting new verve and dynamism into SCO. At Tuesday’s ministerial in Tashkent, Wang underscored that China and Russia “maintain close strategic cooperation in international and regional issues, and have become important components of international stability”.

Now, that is a powerful articulation of the co-relation of forces in regional politics. Wang added that the SCO’s development and strengthening constitute “an important force for preserving peace”.

China is also pushing for acceleration of the “linking” of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union and Beijing’s One Belt One Road project, as agreed upon last year in May by the presidents of Russia and China.

The big question for the moment, however, concerns another security front: What does the induction of India and Pakistan as full members of the SCO portend for the regional grouping’s new-found “pro-activism” or the two regional powers’ mutual relationship?

India-Pakistan relations are in doldrums and the prospects of meaningful dialogue between them remain uncertain. Will they carry their intractable, acrimonious differences and disputes into the SCO tent and impede the grouping’s functioning?

Or will they use the rare opportunity of co-habitation the SCO tent provides – and the vista of steady, institutionalized interactions that it opens up away from publicity – to kick-start a meaningful normalization process that eluded them so far in their tortuous 60-year history?

Cynics despair that India and Pakistan are simply incapable of the maturity expected from responsible nuclear powers. However, a good case can also be made with a contrarian prognosis.

If the “hereditary enmity” between France and Germany could be overcome and transformed into a “special relationship” by 1963, the idea of European Community had sowed the germane seeds.

The heart of the matter is that SCO compels India and Pakistan to cogitate, listen, while sitting around a table – or have a quiet word on the sidelines.

Apart from annual summit meetings, SCO mechanisms envisage frequent consultations at different levels involving heads of governments, foreign ministers, national security advisors, chiefs of intelligence and armed forces, security czars dealing with internal security, and so on.

SCO conducts joint military exercises to finesse and coordinate their operational strategies and share intelligence. To be sure, a vista of unprecedented scale of interaction in security cooperation will open up. It should not be surprising at all if, modestly put, the climate of India-Pakistan relations improves in a positive way.

Then, there are SCO’s regional projects for enhancing connectivity, strengthening energy security or fostering infrastructure development. It is entirely conceivable that India may at some point take a fresh look at China’s One Belt, One Road projects.

Much, clearly, lies in the womb of time, but the high probability is that India and Pakistan’s SCO membership will transform regional security in South Asia. Indeed, China and Russia are stakeholders in promoting such a process.

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