Indian Kashmir militants get a leg-up from locals

Kashmiri villagers shouting pro-freedom slogans during the funeral of a woman who was caught in crossfire during a gun battle between soldiers and militants. Locals have in recent months converged on the scene of gunfights between government forces a
Kashmiri villagers shouting pro-freedom slogans during the funeral of a woman who was caught in crossfire during a gun battle between soldiers and militants. Locals have in recent months converged on the scene of gunfights between government forces and militants opposed to Indian rule of the Muslim-majority region.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Attempts to distract govt forces to help rebels flee during gun battles end in deaths

KAKOPORA (India) • In a graveyard at his school in Indian Kashmir, principal Ghulam Ahmed Bhat stares sadly at a mound of freshly dug earth after another former student was killed in the region's conflict.

University student Shaista Hameed was caught in crossfire during a gun battle between soldiers and militants in February, after she joined scores of residents who poured onto the streets to help the rebels escape.

Senior police officers say locals' efforts to help militants - by putting themselves in harm's way - is a worrying recent development in the decades-long insurgency in the disputed Himalayan territory.

"She had been one of the brightest students of the school," Mr Bhat said of the 22-year-old, whose grave is adorned with flowers in Kakapora town in the Kashmir Valley.

Hundreds of mainly angry young people have converged in recent months on the scene of gun battles that regularly erupt between government forces and militants opposed to Indian rule of the Muslim- majority region.

Often pelting stones and hurling abuse, they attempt to distract security forces to help trapped rebels escape their cordon. Three people, including Ms Hameed, have been killed and scores injured.

"It becomes an extremely difficult task dealing with humongous mobs turning up during our counter-insurgency operations," said Central Reserve Police Force inspector-general Nalin Prabhat. "They try to take away our actual focus at hand, which is to neutralise the terrorists."

Indian forces have been battling militants wanting independence or a merger of the territory with Pakistan since an armed insurgency erupted in 1989. Tens of thousands of people, mainly civilians, have been killed.

Violence has sharply declined in recent years following a major crackdown by the hundreds of thousands of forces deployed in the region.

But mass protests were staged from 2008 until 2010 against Indian rule. Today, about 200 militants, mostly locals, are active across Indian Kashmir, down from several thousand in the 1990s, according to security officials.

A recent increase in militant attacks has galvanised frustrated young Kashmiris, many of whom deeply resent the military's presence and regularly hear allegations of rights abuses and repression, said political historian Siddiq Wahid.

"How can we forget what has been done to generations of Kashmiri people?" said a student in Kakapora who was taking part in the street actions.

Last Tuesday, angry residents in northern Handwara stormed an army bunker after a soldier was accused of molesting a local girl. Soldiers fired into the crowd, leaving three people dead, while two others have been killed in protests against the firing in recent days.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2016, with the headline 'Indian Kashmir militants get a leg-up from locals'. Print Edition | Subscribe