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On the streets of this political hotspot, chucking rocks at the police is the most cherished form of free speech.
“I became a stone thrower in 2004,” says 24-year-old Imran (also using a pseudonym). Dressed in a white Oxford-style shirt, he looks more like a middle class college student than a street thug. “That day, the troops had pulled some women out of their houses in my neighborhood and beat them up. So when the boys came out onto the streets, I joined them.” Since then, he's only grown more committed. “A boy I know is in a coma because he was hit in the head by a teargas shell,” he says.
From Delhi, the complex mire that is called “the Kashmir conflict” looks very different. The days when newspapers chastised the Indian army for human rights abuses and cataloged the long roster of “disappeared persons” are over. Today those reports have been replaced by repeated claims that “peace has returned to the valley,” premature announcements that Kashmir tourism is on the verge of bouncing back, and patriotic paeans to the ordinary soldier. Last year's election, in which voter turnout was high for the first time in many years, was also interpreted as a sign that the people were ready to accept India's dominion.
On the ground, though, Kashmir looks and sounds more like a territory already under occupation than one besieged by a foreign power. For one thing, the Indian army — some 600,000 soldiers, nearly one soldier for every ten civilians — is everywhere, not just on the border with Pakistan. For another, nobody here considers India's troops to be heroes. “If you talk to the people,” said Sajaad Hussain, an activist who heads an NGO called the J&K Research Development Trust, “You'll find 80 percent want independence. Maybe 20 percent want to go with Pakistan. Nobody is for India.”
That's likely an exaggeration. But in my brief wanderings, I wasn't able to turn up a single person who had good things to say about the Indian government. Almost everyone said they wanted Kashmir to be independent. Some of the more practical Kashmiris demanded autonomy — both political and economic — since that is a measure India has at least declared itself willing to consider. And others, still more jaded, simply hoped for demilitarization. This was not at all what I had expected. But in some ways, it made perfect sense.
For many years, watchdog groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the Indian army for human rights violations in Kashmir, where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act gives the military the right to arrest civilians, seize property and shoot to kill and the Public Safety Act allows security forces to detain suspects for as long as two years without any sanction from the court.
In Srinagar, the security presence is unmistakable. Armed soldiers direct traffic at intersections. Flak-jacketed mine sweeping units patrol the roadside with sniffer dogs. Bunkers built from sandbags and razor wire blanket the city at strategic corners. And the stone pelters of Lal Chowk say they abuse these powers — storming into homes, beating protesters, and threatening activists with arbitrary detention under the Public Safety Act — to crush independence activists' freedom of expression. From that enforced silence, they say, comes the stone.