Non-violent protest in Kashmir

Non-violent protest in Kashmir

Listen Listen to George Arney's report from Kashmir (6 mins 32 secs)

Un-noticed by a world otherwise obsessed with the threat from Islamist extremism, a 20 year old Muslim separatist struggle in South Asia has embraced non-violence.

Indian security forces in Srinagar

Since July this year, more than 40 protesters, all unarmed, have been gunned down by Indian security forces in the beautiful but deeply troubled Kashmir Valley.

The deaths are no more than a tiny addition to the 70,000 people who have been killed there since armed revolt first broke out against India in 1989.

But, remarkably, in a conflict saturated with guns and spear-headed by armed militants, not a single shot has so far been fired by protesters, despite a new upsurge of anger among young Kashmiris at their harsh treatment by Indian security forces.

Delapidated capital

The latest rebellion in the Kashmir Valley, which was incorporated into India in 1947 despite its overwhelmingly Muslim population and its proximity to Pakistan, follows a period of several years in which conditions had been improving.

A tentative peace process between India and Pakistan has led to a decline in cross-border infiltration by Muslim fighters.

The Valley's picturesque but delapidated capital, Srinagar now has a sprinkling of shiny new shopping malls, the ubiquitous symbol of India's new prosperity.

But an obscure dispute over the gift of land to a Hindu shrine trust in the summer rekindled angry protests by Kashmiri Muslims, which quickly escalated into a popular movement and a full-scale revival of the 20 year old demand for aazadi, or independence.

Throughout August, hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris came out onto the streets demanding freedom from India.

Frequent provocations

The government responded by attacking the protesters and imposing a day and night curfew. Protests are currently suspended during the harvesting and wedding season.

But separatist leaders, who have been struggling to keep control of what began as a spontaneous popular movement, say they will shortly announce a new date for their resumption.

Protesters have repeatedly thrown stones at security forces, but so far they have not resorted to the gun, despite frequent provocations by Indian paramilitary police forces who tend to regard Kashmiris as alien and treacherous.

"They were using brute force", a local journalist told me, recalling the August uprising. "They burst into houses, ransacked them, and beat up the inmates."

As well as being responsible for many of the deaths inflicted so far on unarmed protesters, eyewitness accounts tell of paramilitary personnel from India's Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) stopping ambulances carrying injured demonstrators and beating up everyone inside, including hospital staff.

Gandhian tactics

On at least one occasion, corpses were also beaten up. Tear gas was fired into several hospitals where injured protesters were being taken.

After the tear-gassing of his casualty ward, a team of doctors was taking in more than a hundred badly injured patients, one hospital doctor told me his loyalty to India had evaporated. "On that day", he said, "I knew that we are not dealing with human beings on the other side."

In the light of this heavy-handed treatment, the determination of ordinary protesters, separatist politicians and even militants to avoid armed retaliation is a remarkable development.

Yasin Malik, a former militant leader who adopted Gandhian tactics in the mid-90s, claims that, if it bears fruit, Kashmiri non-violence could "become an inspiration for Muslim movements across the globe".

But if the outside world continues to ignore the development, Malik warns, it will be hard to sustain a non-violent approach, given the intense anger felt by young Kashmiris.

Non-violent protest

And then what? Given Kashmir's proximity to the heartlands of the Taleban there's a risk that the next phase of the armed militancy could be an Al-Qaeda-style militancy.

The purist version of Islam espouse by Sunni radicals is alien to the gentle, Sufi-influenced traditions of Kashmir, where the veneration of Muslim saints is central to religious practice.

Twenty years on from the outbreak of the rebellion, what struck me most strongly during the week I have just spent in the Valley, apart from the adoption of non-violent protest, was the lack of any sign that radical Islam has made inroads.

Most Kashmiri Muslim women wear colourful clothes, and are unveiled. There is a vibrant dating scene in Srinagar, with boys and girls meeting unmolested in the city's coffee bars and internet cafes.

But with next door Pakistan increasingly under threat from pro-Taleban militants the Talibanisation of the Kashmiri separatist struggle can't be ruled out.

Delhi and the rest of the world could benefit from paying greater heed to Kashmir's tentative transition from violence to non-violence. The window of opportunity is unlikely to remain open indefinitely.

First broadcast 14 October 2008