- - Sunday, November 20, 2016

VARANASI, India — Aiina Shah lost her brother to the latest surge of violence to engulf Kashmir, the India-controlled province that is also claimed by Pakistan.

He was blinded by pellets that the security police fired on demonstrators, she said. He died a few weeks later from wounds to the rest of his body.

“He did not want to go the hospital for treatment because the police were raiding hospitals to arrest [those injured],” said Ms. Shah, a 28-year-old student from Sopore in the Baramulla district of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. “Local doctors could not help [heal] his infection.”

Ms. Shah’s brother was one of more than 100 people, mostly protesters, killed in demonstrations that began in July after a popular young Kashmiri militant died in a gunbattle with police.

Since then, local shops have shut their doors, schools have closed and outbreaks of violence have risen steadily in protests and an escalating tit-for-tat spat between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. India and Pakistan have expelled each other’s diplomats in the past month.



The escalation may prove an unexpected early test for President-elect Donald Trump and his emerging foreign policy team. The issue was almost entirely overlooked during the presidential race, where the foreign policy debate focused heavily on Russia and the Middle East. Mr. Trump has established a personal rapport with the strongly pro-business Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but he also raised eyebrows across the region when he told an Indian newspaper last month that he would be honored to serve as a mediator if asked in the long-running Kashmir clash.

Pakistan has long pushed for international intervention in the dispute, while India has refused to accept outside mediators. Mr. Trump in the interview called Kashmir a “very, very hot tinderbox.”

Pakistani officials said last week that thousands of villagers near the border in Kashmir fled a day after Indian shelling killed seven Pakistani soldiers. That was only the latest shooting across the Line of Control, which divides the Himalayan region claimed by both countries.

In the worst incident in September, 19 Indian soldiers were killed at their base in Kashmir. Indians said the attack was orchestrated by a militant group based in Pakistan with Pakistani help, a charge Islamabad denies. That attack was followed by an Indian strike on “militant bases” across the Pakistani border.

Now many believe this is the conflict that will push tensions in the region over the edge.

“A proxy war between these two nations [over Kashmir] is already happening,” said Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a political and international law professor at Kashmir Central University. “And incidents in last four months have tensed the relationship even more.”

He added that he expects violence to grow, especially with no resolution in sight: “[Nothing] can make us believe India or Pakistan are going to sit down together and talk on Kashmir issue.”

The violence is just the latest turmoil to strike the mountainous region on a border that has witnessed three wars between India and Pakistan. In between those conflicts, violence has been common throughout the Kashmir Valley in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir since India and Pakistan became independent states in 1947. Insurgents seeking to join Pakistan and achieve independence for the region rose up in an armed insurgency in the 1980s. India has suppressed those movements.

In recent years, however, separatists have gained support especially among disaffected Kashmiri youths. Unemployment, tensions between citizens and officials, heavy police militarization of civilian spaces and suspected human rights violations by the Indian army have pushed Kashmiri youths to take part in anti-India protests. This time, in Burhan Muzzaffar Wani, they found a leader.

The 22-year-old commander of the Hizbul Mujahedeen, an Islamic militant group, had become popular through social media and was one of the more charismatic separatists. It was his killing in a July 8 shootout with security forces that triggered the latest round of violence. In this region, the group is considered heroic.

Thousands attended Wani’s funeral, which became the biggest protest in recent years. Demonstrators poured into the streets and hurled stones. Police responded with pellets, and hundreds were hit in the eyes, local officials say.

In the subsequent months, protesters have defied curfews that have shut down streets and closed schools and businesses. Mobile phone, internet and television services have been intermittently cut off.

The curfews, violence and security measures have made life harder for residents.

“We haven’t opened our shop since July,” said Muzamil Waseem, a businessman from Baramulla district. “We were managing to live with whatever savings we had. Our employees aren’t able to come to work, but we do pay them. That’s how people are managing their lives here.”

“I stayed in Kashmir to manage my family business,” he said. “I thought it was an easy way of earning a living. But now I think my decision was wrong. We’re stuck between security forces and protesters. There is no way out now.”

Ghulam Hassan Pandit, 46, of the Kakpora Tal area, Wani’s hometown, said the situation is increasingly dire.

“Our area is badly hit,” he said. “We are running short of food supplies, our savings are dwindling and medical services lessening. People wish to move out, but they are now framed as terrorists, so they refrain.”

Hassan Beg, a businessman from Srinagar, conceded that Kashmir has always been a conflict zone but said the situation is getting worse.

“This time, things turned more violent and got much attention,” said Mr. Beg. “Many innocent lives were lost. But what hurts most is that our fellow countrymen now consider us as terrorists. They do not count us as Indians. TV channels were accusing us of destabilizing the nation, but they did not bother to see that we were crushed under army boots.

“My son doesn’t want to go New Delhi for his higher studies,” he said. “He fears that he’d be framed as terrorist and will be lynched.”

Kashmiris wonder when this latest round of hostility will end. But Raqib Hameed, a 23-year-old from Srinagar, said the shutdown of services and the violence in the streets have left youths isolated and on edge. He doubts the situation will calm anytime soon.

“If you consider that a young boy is stuck in his house with no internet, phone and television, with the tear gas, pellets and bullets outside, it must be easy for you to think of what young Kashmiri people would do in such scenario,” he said. “People are skeptical. No one has any idea what can happen at any given minute. We have lost trust of everyone but ourselves.”

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