BEHRAMPUR, India (Reuters) - By charred ruins and walls peppered with bullet holes, some villagers gesticulated in the air, others shouted, a few cried. All recounted their version of Indian rule in one of the world’s most militarized regions.
“They treat us like animals,” said Gulam Mohammad, a stooped and nearly toothless villager from Kashmir as he raged against Indian troops he blamed for an attack in December. His voice began to break.
Villagers recounted how troops shelled homes in a battle in which two separatist militants and a soldier died. Troops later killed cows and chickens in retaliation and tortured a boy, putting electrodes on his penis, villagers said.
While India and Pakistan are on their most cordial terms in years and separatist violence at its lowest ebb, incidents like Behrampur are a reminder of how India’s huge security presence in Kashmir still sparks resentment on the ground.
Pakistan has proposed a troop withdrawal as a first step towards peace but India is hesitant, unsure if a recent fall in violence will be sustained.
A random glance at headlines from “Greater Kashmir” newspaper on one day, May 12, underscored the stream of incidents, mostly not reported outside the state - “Soldiers thrash trader”; “3 soldiers succumb”; “Soldiers rape 18-year-old girl”; “Army apprehends two militants”.
“We are slaves,” said Abinah Sayed, a doctor in Srinagar, complaining about checkpoints. “The soldiers say stand here, we stand here. They show you their big sticks. They show us no respect.”
“Demilitarisation will help. People don’t want bunkers, traffic jams. They don’t want half of the roads barricaded.”
The nuclear rivals who both claim Kashmir in full but rule in parts appear closer than ever to a roadmap for peace.
A final settlement to Kashmir is perhaps a long way off, but many Kashmiris hope the removal of many of the estimated 500,000 troops could be the next best thing for the Muslim-dominated state, wracked by insurgency since 1989.
Officials say more than 42,000 people have been killed since then. Human rights groups put the toll at about 60,000 dead.
Demilitarisation also offers relief from the daily checkpoints and house searches by what many locals see as an occupation force -- with a foreign language and customs.
“There is an air of optimism in both capitals for the first time,” said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Kashmir’s chief cleric and head of the moderate separatist alliance All Parties Hurriyat Conference.
“The first thing that is needed is demilitarisation, because for any peace process to move on we need a better atmosphere on the ground.”
Critics say troops only fuel anger and support for separatist militants - themselves feared by many Kashmiris.
They say the presence is out of proportion to the threat that an estimated 1,000 militants pose. Last year about three people on average were killed every day, down from ten a day in 2001.
Kashmir’s summer capital, Srinagar, is a maze of bunkers, checkpoints and patrols. Soldiers stand on the banks of scenic Dal Lake, on golf greens and outside hospitals.
The idyllic setting by Himalayan peaks is peppered with nervous soldiers standing alone in orchards, soldiers swooping through villages and sandbagged checkpoint after checkpoint.
Resentment is made worse by the hated Armed Forces Special Powers Act which allows security forces to arrest suspects without charge and search houses without warrants.
“If you live here and you are young and healthy you are a suspected militant,” said Abdul Ahad, sitting by a store in Wanigam, a village an hour’s drive from Srinagar.
“They’ll pick you up. Most are at least beaten up. Sometimes they are kept for days. We all go to the base to beg for their release.”
Villagers spoke of mundane annoyances -- like patrols seizing mobile phones for several days to check on suspicious calls.
“We start shivering when we see the soldiers,” said Abdul, another villager.
“The government may be in favor of peace but the soldiers aren‘t. If the military went, we’d feel we were free.”
There are some signs of improvement, with fewer troops on the streets.
India denies there have been systematic rights violations. The army says it has an “iron fist in velvet glove” policy. “(It) has always chosen to take a humane approach while undertaking counter military operations,” it said in a statement.
Senior security officials also worry India has fallen into a false sense of security with the fall in attacks.
“This trend could be reversed in a month,” said Gopal Sharma, Kashmir’s police chief. “On the ground we need to keep a presence. It’s easy to remove, but it has to be done cautiously.”
But even some pro-India politicians say the time has come to step back.
“This is the right time for the army to withdraw,” said Mehbooba Mufti, president of the Peoples Democratic Party, a partner in the regional ruling alliance.
“People are in a reconciliatory mood. We need to make the best use of this mood. We can’t take it for granted.” (Additional reporting by Sheikh Mustaq in Srinagar)