Thou­sands in Kash­mir hide from crack­down, some in orchards

Hi­malayan ter­ri­tory in virtual lock­down since July

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

KUL­GAM:

Deep within a vast or­chard, dozens of young Kash­miris laze in the shade of ap­ple trees. Sur­rounded by boxes of fruit, they chat and crack jokes. Some play video games on their phones. For now, they’re at ease, the hilly grove pro­vid­ing a per­fect hideaway from In­dian po­lice and para­mil­i­tary sol­diers de­ployed to hunt them down. But with win­ter ap­proach­ing, the men have taken refuge at night in the homes of friends or dis­tant rel­a­tives, chang­ing lo­ca­tion ev­ery few days and pass­ing mes­sages to loved ones through sup­port­ers and friends.

They worry about putting oth­ers at risk amid In­dia’s largest-ever crack­down on un­armed civil­ians, launched to quell an anti-In­dia up­ris­ing that has kept this Hi­malayan ter­ri­tory in virtual lock­down since July. More than 8,000 peo­ple, mostly teenage boys and young men, have been rounded up and put in jail. Thou­sands more are be­ing sought as sus­pects, but po­lice refuse to give an ac­tual count, say­ing the num­ber is con­stantly chang­ing.

Au­thor­i­ties say the sus­pects pose se­cu­rity risks, hav­ing hurled rocks at gov­ern­ment forces or clashed with po­lice. Some are sus­pected of aid­ing or join­ing sep­a­ratist rebels fight­ing for Kash­mir’s in­de­pen­dence or its merger with neigh­bor­ing Pak­istan. But many are sim­ply iden­ti­fied as hav­ing taken part in what In­dia says are il­le­gal protests.

Those dodg­ing ar­rest by hid­ing in Kash­mir’s many ap­ple orchards say they’re be­ing un­fairly tar­geted by In­dian forces bent on crim­i­nal­iz­ing dis­sent. “We’re pay­ing the cost for rais­ing our voice for free­dom,” said a univer­sity art stu­dent now in hid­ing, one of 40 wanted men who spoke with the As­so­ci­ated Press on con­di­tion of anonymity for fear of be­ing caught. “Now we’re scared even by our own shad­ows.” His cousin said he had to aban­don his science stud­ies to go into hid­ing. “I want to be­come a doc­tor,” he said. “But for now, the po­lice have made me a fugi­tive.”

Con­flict and re­bel­lion

The crack­down is part of a decades­long cy­cle of con­flict and re­bel­lion that has be­dev­iled Kash­mir since In­dia and Pak­istan won in­de­pen­dence in 1947. Shortly there­after they fought their first war over the ter­ri­tory, split­ting the pic­turesque region be­tween the two coun­tries by a United Na­tions-drawn cease­fire line, now known as the line of con­trol. They fought a sec­ond war over the region in 1972.

Many in the mostly Mus­lim region see In­dia as an oc­cu­py­ing force, and re­sent the hun­dreds of thou­sands of troops de­ployed with spe­cial pow­ers to shoot sus­pects on sight while be­ing im­mune from pros­e­cu­tion. In­dia blames Pak­istan for train­ing, arm­ing and shel­ter­ing sep­a­ratist rebels who be­gan fight­ing In­dian forces in 1989. Nearly 70,000 peo­ple have been killed in the con­flict. Pak­istan de­nies the al­le­ga­tions, say­ing it of­fers only moral sup­port to rebels and Kash­miri civil­ians.

This year’s vi­o­lence erupted fol­low­ing the July 8 killing of a pop­u­lar rebel com­man­der by In­dian forces. There have been al­most daily protests since then, of­ten with stone-throw­ing youths clash­ing with po­lice and para­mil­i­tary forces fir­ing pel­lets and bul­lets into the crowds. In­dian au­thor­i­ties also have staged months of night­time raids. At least 90 civil­ians and two policemen have been killed, with thou­sands more in­jured, most of them civil­ians. Cur­fews, com­mu­ni­ca­tion black­outs, road­blocks and sep­a­ratist-spon­sored strikes have largely par­a­lyzed public life.

A top po­lice of­fi­cer in the main city of Srinagar said nearly 500 of the more than 8,000 sus­pects de­tained had been ar­rested under a law that al­lows them to be held for up to two years with­out charge. He and other of­fi­cials spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause po­lice and army poli­cies bar them from speak­ing to re­porters on the record. “A tough ap­proach to deal with protests has worked,” one army of­fi­cer said at a mil­i­tary camp near the ur­ban cen­ter of Anant­nag. “Un­for­tu­nately, peo­ple will suf­fer.”

Yet in­side one po­lice bar­rack last week, uni­formed Kash­miri of­fi­cers ad­mit­ted fears of their own. One con­sta­ble said an an­gry crowd told his fam­ily they would torch their home if they saw him in uni­form again. An­other said he joined in a protest while on va­ca­tion; he nearly lost his job, but avoided ret­ri­bu­tion from neigh­bors an­gry over his job. “I had no choice. That was the only way for me to save my­self and my fam­ily,” he said. The up­ris­ing has been most pro­nounced in south­ern ar­eas famed for their orchards, rice pad­dies and gen­tly rolling Hi­malayan foothills. Po­lice of­fi­cers rou­tinely re­fer to the clus­ter of vil­lages be­tween Anant­nag and the town of Kul­gam as one of the most dan­ger­ous trou­ble spots.

Hu­mil­i­a­tion is in­tol­er­a­ble

Residents in the area ac­cuse In­dian forces of raid­ing neigh­bor­hoods, ran­sack­ing homes, beat­ing civil­ians and fir­ing on more than 300 elec­tric­ity trans­form­ers to cut power to homes. Vil­lages else­where have since for­ti­fied their trans­form­ers with sand­bags and wooden logs. “They come, ran­sack our homes and hit our moth­ers and sis­ters. This hu­mil­i­a­tion is in­tol­er­a­ble,” said a 17-year-old stu­dent, winc­ing with the pain of un­treated pel­let in­juries sus­tained while resisting a po­lice raid on his vil­lage of Ha­woora in Oc­to­ber. The stu­dent, listed as “wanted” by po­lice, has been too afraid to visit a hos­pi­tal.—AP

SRINAGAR: Masked Kash­miri pro­test­ers face gov­ern­ment forces dur­ing a protest on the out­skirts of Srinagar. —AP

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