The South Asia Channel

Tear gas in Kashmir

Tear gas in Kashmir


When  you fire a tear gas shell, you’re supposed to aim below the chest. That’s basically agreed upon, it’s written somewhere: an understanding extracted from a code of conduct housed in an operating manual stuck in someone’s desk drawer. "The policemen are trained to fire the tear gas shells in a parabolic way and not directly," the Inspector General of Kashmir’s police force told a local paper, describing in a decidedly sterile manner the intended trajectory of a little steel projectile whose intended target is, after all, civilians.

It’s also understood that often, this does not happen. Tear gas shells rocket off walls and ricochet and dance and skip across the concrete, so "non-lethal" intentions don’t necessarily beget non-lethal results. You don’t know where the thing is going to end up really, and sometimes — in the case of especially zealous protesters — where it ends up is hurtling back through the air at you. So you fire them where you want the gas to go and hope you don’t learn later that it hit a soft part of someone’s body, producing the precise inverse of the effect you intended. "Minimum force" weapons can prove plenty forceful, and "crowd control" measures sometimes wind up rousing bigger and angrier crowds. 

The wayward tear gas canister is perhaps an apt metaphor for India’s problem in its Himalayan northwest, where it administers to a province of people who don’t want it there, and where it is trying to control the population with enough force that Indian authority is respected; not so much that it’s resented.  And it’s a wayward tear gas canister that catalyzed violence last week in Kashmir, after an incident that began when a 14-year-old boy headed out to play cricket with his friends on January 31.

By way of explanation, if not necessarily apology, for the events that followed, the director general of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) later said that "stone pelting" is "a new form of gunless terrorism." He lamented bodily injuries of unspecified severity suffered by his men, and cited "close to 400 vehicles damaged in the last one-and-a-half year." He might have gone on to complain about name-calling and rude language. Indeed, for all its tactical prowess, the CRPF falters when it comes to PR. Its concept of a public information campaign is a series of signs at security checkpoints across Kashmir that read enjoy the beauty, we are on duty, an almost satirically blithe appeal coming from hardened counterinsurgency men with big weapons and grim faces.

And yet, one can’t fault them for trying to make their name smell a little better in a place where they’ve come to stand for everything the people hate. To many Kashmiris, the very presence of the paramilitary CRPF constitutes an insidious kind of insult. Not just because the paramilitaries are viewed as a Hindu force in the majority Muslim Kashmir, but because they’re perceived to be hard men trained to fight militants, and having them keep the peace on city streets feels a little like calling in Navy SEALS to mediate bar fights. That New Delhi sends paramilitaries to do crowd control in Kashmir suggests to Kashmiris that India regards the people there as indistinct from al Qaeda, Lashkar-e Taiba, or other Pakistan-based militants. In other words, despite New Delhi reducing the paramilitary presence in Kashmir year by year, Kashmiris feel their being there at all is an indication that India thinks of all Kashmiris — Indian citizens — as terrorists.

So was the situation in Kashmir on the last Sunday of January sitting at a high simmer, when an assistant sub-inspector with the Jammu and Kashmir police force fired a teargas canister in an apparently un-parabolic manner, hitting a teenage boy named Wamiq Farooq in the head and killing him.

A number of things happened next. Protests erupted in towns and villages all over the valley, people taking to the streets as reports emerged of another boy taking a plastic pellet in the forehead and losing his sight, one getting a canister in the belly and losing his spleen, still others struck through with pellets but preferring to forgo treatment for fear of police waiting at hospitals, ready to arrest those carrying proof of participation in protests on (or in) their bodies. Each story instigated new and more intense protests, as local journalists reported that the government arrested close to 100 people by its own count and many more by everyone else’s, and injuries suffered by citizens, police, and paramilitaries numbered in the hundreds.

As news of the violence made its way west, Pakistanis already planning to demonstrate for "Solidarity Day," an annual day of protest against Indian control in Kashmir took to the streets to support their (mostly) Muslim brothers on the Indian side of the Line of Control, forming human chains in Islamabad and Muzaffarabad, holding rallies in Lahore and Peshawar.

Last Friday amidst growing protests, a member of one of the paramilitary forces operating in the valley shot and killed a 17-year-old named Zahid Farooq (no relation to Wamiq), sending the situation over the edge. Cries of "blood for blood" and "we want freedom" sounded out at his funeral a day later, and Srinagar fell under an even tighter grip of government forces. The government restricted the assembly of more than four people, and shut down roads. I reached a journalist friend on the phone, out of breath and frantic, who told me "everything is closed. We are not being allowed to go to places, I tried my best to go to one of the places where they imposed the curfew and are now protesting." As he spoke, he became so exercised that that he began pushing keys on the dial pad accidentally. "Downtown area Srinagar," he said, "I can’t get there, nobody is being allowed, the protesters are only getting there through back alleys."

Before hanging up, he told me, "It is totally different this time. The youth are very angry, I see rage in their eyes, more so than ever before."

**

Here is what’s strange about the latest boiling-over in Kashmir: the youth in the streets aren’t responding to orders, they’re giving them. The main Muslim party in Kashmir, the All Parties Hurriyat conference, initially declared a one-day strike, but a group of twenty or so young men assembled a conference of their own and announced they wouldn’t listen to Hurriyat leaders; they wanted a longer strike, four days instead of one. The people struck for four. And after more violence, they struck some more.

As influence in Kashmir has percolated from state officials down to religious leaders, and finally, to young men, New Delhi will have a harder and harder time finding people to negotiate with. A government minister can’t hold two-party talks with teenagers, but increasingly it’s the disenfranchised youth who have the pulse of the people, and the inclination to act decisively. Frustrated young men are taking the torch from older separatist leaders who’ve become more ruminative in their twilight. "After twenty years of violence, the new generation which is now on the street was born on a battlefield," says Inpreet Kaur, another Kashmiri-born journalist. "They are born under the shadow of a gun. For them, these agitations are part of life. The protests are part of life. Violence is a point or normalcy for this generation." So youth make up the new power bloc, a phenomenon that in both origin and implication is not unlike the Taliban ("the students") storming forth from the madrassas in Pakistan in the nineties, or al Shabaab ("the lads") lording over war-torn Somalia.

India does not appear to be addressing disenfranchised youth in Kashmir very well. India has been remarkably proactive in advocating negotiations with Pakistan, and deserves credit for any progress the two countries make. The Byzantium of backroom negotiations that characterize Indian geopolitics is dizzying, and because most negotiations related to Kashmir are necessarily secret, it’s impossible to fairly evaluate New Delhi’s efforts to mitigate the Kashmir crisis. Two weeks ago, however, India appointed a new national security advisor with a more flexible stance towards Pakistan than his predecessor, and this weekend, India publicly proposed foreign-secretary-level negotiations with its archrival. If Pakistan responds favorably to these steps, India’s higher-road statecraft could lead to tangible progress. But it will do little to defuse Kashmir, because even if Pakistan and India were, hypothetically, to agree on Kashmir, Kashmiris likely wouldn’t.

While India is closer to bilateral talks, "trilateral" talks — negotiations which actually include Kashmir — could never be publicly entertained. Negotiations with Kashmir would suggest that Kashmir is an autonomous region, that it’s not is one of India’s central contentions. Kashmir does not belong to Pakistan, Kashmir belongs to India, so goes the logic, and that Kashmir might belong to itself is not an option India has political room to consider. They’ve tried to, even recently. New Delhi held "quiet diplomacy" talks with Kashmir’s Hurriyat conference last fall, but when The Hindu reported the story, the project was scuttled, and Kashmiris were left to doing what they’ve been doing as long as they can remember: watching Pakistan and India volley back and forth over their heads, feeling sometimes ignored, sometimes like puppets between two disputants, children manipulated by two feuding parents. 

It is fitting, then, that the region’s fate depends on its children. Some of the young Kashmiris have taken to calling themselves the Asian Palestine, and they believe they’re fighting the Kashmiri intifada.

The antidote is better development, hospitals, opportunities for work and normalized political engagement. But as it stands, "the only relief the young people are getting is through religion," the Kashmiri journalist Kaur says. "On the ground you don’t see job opportunities. So what is happening is that you’re starting to hear of local young people getting involved in militancy against the government." The trend is shifting from Pakistani terrorists hopping (or being shoved) across the Line of Control into India to wreak havoc, more now to Indian citizens training to confront India. Official estimates place the number of Kashmiris who’ve gone into Pakistan for training at 800, but the figure could be significantly more. 

Riding the metro in New Delhi as he spoke to me, speaking low and covering the receiver so as not to be overheard, Kaur explained the significance of a recent report that eight teenage boys were arrested on their way to Pakistan, allegedly intending to receive militant training. "According to the police," he said, "all these boys were from South Kashmir, they were young new recruits. What is the true story? We don’t know." But when young people get caught or go missing in Kashmir, everyone assumes the worst.

On Tuesday, shops reopened and the government cleared roads they had blocked, returning Kashmir to a tentative kind of normalcy. "But that doesn’t mean Kashmir will die off," Kaur says. "The situation is best suited for pan-Islamic militants, and they’re growing into a mass movement. They need a political solution. This disease is slowly growing."

Jeffrey Stern is the international engagement manager at the National Constitution Center and a journalist who spent much of the last two years traveling across South Asia.