SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Simmering anger over India’s crackdown on 10 weeks of protests in Kashmir risks drawing more young people to radical rebellion, demonstrators and security officials warn, as the sense of despair and alienation from New Delhi deepens.
In the worst unrest in the disputed Himalayan region for six years, more than 80 civilians have been killed and thousands wounded, a widespread curfew is in place and suspected ringleaders are being held without charge.
“They are treating us like ‘dons’, like we are criminals,” said Bilal Bhat, a 27-year-old journalist who is active in a local youth civil rights movement.
Bhat was taken in by police in August and told to stop posting articles on Facebook. It was the second time he has been held. “When I was beaten by the cop, I cursed myself for taking a pen - I should have taken a gun instead,” he told Reuters.
A conflict that has seeped for decades and spilled into war twice between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan usually passes little noticed by the international community.
But the scale of the violence and security crackdown, and, more recently, a sharp escalation in tension between the neighboring countries, have made the outside world sit up and pay attention.
India’s security forces have also reinforced their already large presence in Kashmir, drafting in 20,000 paramilitaries and 10,000 more soldiers.
A senior Home Ministry official said India’s security forces had reduced their use of pellet ammunition, which has drawn widespread condemnation, and had been instructed only to fire when they felt directly threatened.
“It is clear that the local Kashmiri youths were being used by Pakistan to attack Indian forces,” the official said, responding to questions from Reuters about the use of force and risk of youth radicalization.
“It is true that there is a lot of anger among the Kashmiris, but we cannot legitimize their anger if it is for all the wrong reasons.”
India blames Pakistan for a raid earlier this month on a base that killed 18 soldiers, in the deadliest attack on its army in 14 years, prompting Hindu nationalist supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to call for revenge.
Several countries, alarmed at the prospect of a military response by India, condemned the attack, while Pakistan denied any involvement.
Journalist Bhat and others see the start of the latest crisis in Kashmir not as the attack on the army camp in Uri on Sept. 18, but the killing by Indian security forces of Burhan Wani, a popular separatist militant leader, on July 8.
Stone-throwing protesters took to the streets in a display of support for the slain insurgent that also reflected deep-rooted unease about a central government they say is pursuing a Hindu-nationalist agenda to pacify and assimilate India’s only Muslim-majority region.
Many of those killed in the clashes died from shotgun pellets or rifle bullets fired by police and paramilitary troops, and the supposedly non-lethal pellet rounds have blinded hundreds of bystanders, including children and women.
“The police are using brute force,” said one protester, a 27-year-old university graduate who works in the private sector and spoke to Reuters at a safe house in the old town of Srinagar, the summer capital of India’s northernmost state.
“They are leaving local boys with no choice but to take up arms. You are creating home-grown rebels by your actions - and then you are labeling them as terrorists.”
The ophthalmology ward of Srinagar’s main SMHS hospital is still overflowing with patients either partly or fully blinded by pellet rounds fired by police or paramilitary troops.
Some, like Mushtaq, a 22-year-old student from the restive district of Pulwama, say they were demonstrating when they were shot at.
Despite being blinded in his right eye, which was swathed in a bandage, Mushtaq said: “I would go out again and protest once I recover.”
Others, like an 18-year-old high school student who gave his name as Muhsin, say they were bystanders caught in the crossfire.
Four young boys tried to escape by jumping into the nearby Jhelum river but were fired on by police. Muhsin dived in to try and rescue one boy who had been shot, only to be hit himself in the left eye and blinded.
He was unable to save the boy, who drowned.
The 850-bed hospital has received hundreds of casualties from street clashes, which have died down for now.
“I don’t know how we managed,” said Dr Nisur Al-Hassan, a consultant at the hospital and president of the Doctors Association of Kashmir.
Hassan said he had seen patients “with eyes gone, spleens gone, kidneys gone. These pellets have pierced their hearts, their abdomens, their brains. We can only operate on three to five patients at a time. You can only imagine.”
Human rights activist Khurram Parvez, a vocal critic of the security crackdown, was on the way to present his findings to a UN rights meeting in Geneva when he was turned back at Delhi’s international airport on Sept. 14.
After Parvez returned home to Srinagar he was briefly detained, and then re-arrested under a public safety law that allows suspects to be held for six months without being charged.
Parvez is not alone: in jail is moderate separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, while hundreds more suspected protest ringleaders have been detained over the past month in raids on towns and villages across the Kashmir Valley.
Schools in Srinagar have been commandeered and turned into barracks and, even in quieter parts of the city of 1.3 million where the curfew has been lifted, there is a heavy security presence. Most shops remain shut.
A senior army officer said the outbreak of protests in Kashmir had at first been overwhelming.
“Our failure was in not being able to anticipate the extent of the protests,” the officer said, on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
“We were unable to stabilize the cycle of violence and killing. Some lives were lost because the use of force was required. Our crowd control methods are primitive, but in this part of the world nothing else would have worked.”
In the meantime, the protests have given a new lease of life to militants who have been sighted among the crowds and are believed by the authorities to be playing an active role in organizing them.
“It’s a very organized hoodlum element that works with the militants,” said a senior police officer with long experience of the insurgency in Kashmir that first broke out at the end of the 1980s.
The officer pulled a smartphone out of his pocket and showed a video circulated by Zakir Rashid Bhat, named to replace Wani as Hizbul Mujahideen’s commander in South Kashmir.
The video shows men in uniform beating protesters and is accompanied by a soundtrack of rhythmic chants urging people to be faithful and to take revenge against the police.
“This is the imagery of ISIS,” the police officer said, referring to the extremist group Islamic State. “The radicalization is growing stronger.”
Additional reporting by Rupam Jain; Writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Mike Collett-White