BY ONE account, what happened in Shopian district in the Indian part of Kashmir on the first Sunday in May was a stinging defeat for jihadism. Security forces had trapped five armed rebels in a house during the night. When the shooting stopped at noon they were all dead. Among them was Saddam Paddar, the local commander of a militant Islamist group. He had been on the wanted list since 2014 but, more importantly to police, also happened to be the last man still at large among 11 young guerrillas whose group photograph, taken in 2015, had gone viral, inspiring support for armed resistance to Indian rule. The “neutralisation” of Mr Paddar—in the words of a police spokesman—symbolised the futility of insurrection.
Other tellings emphasise different elements of the day’s events. As happens with growing regularity during the Indian army’s search-and-kill operations in the Kashmir Valley, hundreds of villagers had gathered at the scene to try to protect the doomed fugitives. During the incident and in subsequent protests, police gunfire killed six more people, all civilians. Dozens more were hospitalised, many with shotgun pellets lodged in their eyes. More than 1,250 people have been treated for similar eye injuries over the past two years.
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The Shopian “martyrs” all turned out to be local Kashmiris and not, as has often been the case in the past, infiltrators from Pakistan. Tens of thousands thronged their funerals. One viral video showed a woman, said to be Mr Paddar’s mother, standing on a rooftop before a chanting crowd and firing an automatic rifle in a gesture of defiance. It emerged, too, that one of the slain militants had been a popular teacher of sociology at the University of Kashmir. He had earned his doctorate only in November, and had joined the rebels just two days before his death. As inexorably as police are hunting down rebels, Kashmiris concluded, new recruits are joining them.
The contrast between these two narratives helps explain why Kashmir remains in uproar after 30 years of turmoil. Following a decline in political violence after a Pakistan-backed insurgency peaked 20 years ago, the death toll has mounted again in recent years, from a low of 117 fatalities in 2012 to 358 in 2017, and 132 so far this year.
Yet the situation as understood in Delhi, the Indian capital, as purveyed in the Indian press and as widely accepted by 1.3bn other Indians, is that brave Indian troops are waging a largely successful effort to crush a small but resilient band of Islamist terrorists who are operated by remote control from Pakistan. The situation as experienced in the Kashmir Valley, whose 7m people are nearly all Kashmiri-speaking Muslims, is rather different. In the absence of any political initiative from Delhi to respond to Kashmiris’ concerns, the heavy-handed efforts of half a million soldiers to crush a few dozen armed militants are compounding a growing sense of alienation from India.
The disjuncture in these views is reflected in the clumsy coalition that runs the state. One partner is the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose local support is concentrated in the Hindu-majority region of Jammu but which also runs the national government. The other is the Peoples Democratic Party, one of several Kashmiri groups that participate in elections and so are branded traitors by more radical factions. The relative strength of the radicals, who include pro-independence, pro-Pakistan and pan-Islamist groups, is hard to judge since they are either banned or have boycotted elections. Partly as a result, voter turnout has typically been low.
Following another bloody Sunday in early April that left 19 people dead, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the elderly leader of one dissident group, released a video of himself banging on the inside of his own gate, demanding to be released from house arrest. “Open the doors,” he shouted to police outside, “I want to attend the funeral of your democracy.”
Indian democracy is not quite dead in the Kashmir Valley, but it is certainly ailing. Since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 called their fate into question, Kashmiris have been hostage to relations between the two. In its focus on the bigger picture, India has often flouted Kashmiri concerns. This trend has grown harsher since the BJP took power in 2014, vowing to end “appeasement” of Indian Muslims and to get tough on Pakistan. As Mohammed Ayoob, an Indian-American political scientist, recently lamented in the Hindu, an Indian daily, “If the political elites had the sagacity to solve or at least manage the problem ‘in’ Kashmir, the problem ‘of’ Kashmir would have lost its salience over time. Unfortunately, they did exactly the reverse.”