Uprising in Kashmir 'If We Protest, the Soldiers Will Shoot at Us'

The killing by Indian security forces of a 15-year-old boy in Kashmir has become a rallying point for human rights groups over India's controversial use of pellet guns. The recent death is only the latest in a long-brewing independence battle in the contested region.

By Fahad Shah


Abdul Salaam Sheikh at his home in Kashmir. His 15-year-old son was killed during a revolt against the Indian government in Jammu and Kashmir.
Camillo Pasquarelli

Abdul Salaam Sheikh at his home in Kashmir. His 15-year-old son was killed during a revolt against the Indian government in Jammu and Kashmir.

On August 15, as India celebrated the 70th anniversary of its independence, 15-year-old Yasir Salaam Sheikh was playing with friends in the streets of his neighborhood. Sheikh lived in Kashmir, the contested region nestled between India and Pakistan and on that summer evening, the government had once again imposed a strict curfew on his district.

That didn't stop the young man from walking around 300 meters over to a group of young men who were protesting for Kashmir's independence in the capital city of Srinagar. They were part of an uprising that has been raging there for weeks, with the streets of Kashmir resembling a war zone for some time now. Shops, schools, government and private offices have been closed, and traffic has been ground to a halt by barbed wire barricades. Internet service has been cut and access to telephone networks limited.

Hospitals have also declared a state of emergency in response to the rising number of casualties, with thousands having been injured and more than 70 killed. One of those was 15-year-old Yasir Salaam Sheikh.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: The Kashmir Rebels' Rage

To quell the demonstrations, security forces have been firing tear gas and pellet guns at protesters. Like shotguns, they project hundreds of shrapnel-like pellets that can cause serious injuries and even death if improperly used.

On August 15, one of the pellets pierced Sheikh's heart. He died on the way to a nearby hospital. A group of people later brought his body to his father.

His father, Abdul Salaam Sheikh, 52, said that his son stood for Kashmir's freedom. He told his relatives over the phone that his son had become a martyr, that he had sacrificed his life for independence. But he was also his son, the very one he had been playing chess with only hours before he was killed.

"He would always say that he was unarmed, but they shot at him anyway," said Salaam. "He didn't understand why we were being treated like this. Had nobody told the Indians that there are protests all over the world, but that nobody shoots pellets at people?"

Used properly, security officials are only supposed to aim below the knees when firing pellet guns. Yet because some aren't adhering to that rule and are instead firing at the upper body and the head, they have become fatal. More than 500 people have already been struck in the eye by pellets and a few have been blinded as a result.

A wounded Kashmiri in Srinagar
AFP

A wounded Kashmiri in Srinagar

The new generation of Kashmiris is ready to face the bullets, Sheikh once told his father. "We have to keep fighting until we're free," he told him. "If we go out to protest, the soldiers won't be throwing flowers -- they'll shoot us."

His father, who works as a carpenter, remains determined. He said he's only been able to work for a total of six days since the uprising began. "I don't regret that my son has been killed or that I have lost so many days of work," he said. "All this is the sacrifice we make for the larger political goal: freedom."

Soldiers are stationed all over to enforce the curfew, and this in a region that is already highly militarized. Around half a million soldiers are stationed in Kashmir. For decades, the region has been at the center of the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, and they have already waged two wars over Kashmir.

Shortly after India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947, the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir joined the Dominion of India. Pakistan never accepted its annexation and today, both India and Pakistan as well as China have claims on either parts or all of Kashmir.

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Although the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution in 1948 calling for the Kashmiris to hold a referendum determining which country they wanted to join, it was never implemented. Instead, Kashmir was divided. The southern part has become the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, and the north is under the administration of Pakistan. The conflict over independence continues to simmer among residents of Jammu and Kashmir today.

The latest uprising began on July 8, when popular rebel commander Burhan Wani was shot and killed by Indian special forces. He had succeeded in mobilizing many young people using social media. Even weeks after his death, violence continued to flare up repeatedly.

The government in Pakistan has taken advantage of the tense situation in order to wage diplomatic warfare against India. Last month, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared Wani a martyr and called for the entire country to pray in his memory. Pakistan also raised the issue at the United Nations, but India refused to tolerate what it called "interfering" with the country's "internal issues." As tensions grew, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stepped in and called on the countries to allow fact-finding missions into the region.

Meanwhile, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been unwilling to hold talks with local pro-independence groups, who she accuses of having fomented the uprising. But without a dialogue, the anger among protesters will only grow.

Perhaps the world's silence has made these young men even more aggressive.

An injured teenager at a hospital who was struck by pellets.
Camillo Pasquarelli

An injured teenager at a hospital who was struck by pellets.

Each day, dozens of new patients require treatment in hospitals. On September 4 alone, around 600 people were injured within 24 hours. Many young men at a hospital in Srinagar wear eye patches after having undergone operations to have pellets removed. Among them is 18-year-old Zubair Dar. He said he blacked out the moment the pellets struck his body. "I don't remember anything up to the point when I found myself on a hospital bed," he said.

It takes hours to remove the pellets from a person's eye, and additional operations are necessary in order to restore whatever vision is still possible. Despite the outcry from human rights organizations over the use of pellets, the Indian government continues to deploy them.

Still, the Indian government's crackdown has done nothing to quash the rebels' ire. Many of the boys are waiting to be discharged from the hospital in order to return to their hometowns and resume the fight. In villages and towns across Kashmir, the word azaadi, or freedom, reverberates every day. And thousands continue to attend protests -- even though they risk death by participating, as Sheikh did.

About the Author
  • Kajal Nisha Patel
    Fahad Shah is an independent journalist and founder of the magazine The Kashmir Walla. He studied journalism in Kashmir and London and writes for Foreign Affairs, The Diplomat and the Christian Science Monitor. He also published a collection of writings called, "Of Occupation and Resistance: Writings from Kashmir."
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abhattac 09/15/2016
1. Freedom?
It is atrocious, I do not support brutality. It is also important that this movement is based on the ethnic cleansing of Hindus living in Kashmir. Then it was followed by consistent persecution of Kashmiri Muslims who supported the Indian government. If Kashmir becomes free, it will be become another safe haven for terrorists/ Islamic fundamentalists to operate on.
jmclellen1 09/17/2016
2. Sad Truth
As "abhattac" stated, the sad truth is that if Kashmir becomes free, it will become radicalized by Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists. It seems that every country in the middle east (Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iraq) that has been or is in the process of being released from a strong rule, has sunk into radical Islamization.
jimjamjoo2005 09/17/2016
3. Kashmir and Aazaadi
No one ever talks about the 1990s when scores of Hindus were butchered in Kashmir,many Kashmiri Hindu( Pandit) women were repeatedly raped and then cut into pieces with electric saws.The Pandits were told bluntly--leave your women behind and go. Today what is happening is not something that should attract any sympathy.There are elements of ISIS emerging in this region.The Pakistan administered Kashmir is very much behind in development and yet these kind of protests are not witnessed because the locals are a minority and oppressed to the point of silence.India has adhered to the U.N. rules of not allowing any Indian person to buy property in Kashmir unless he/she is a Kashmiri person.Pakistan,on the other hand,has overwhelmed this region by sending retired army officers( mainly Punjabi) to settle down there,Afghan refugees are settled there,China has been given Aksai Chin.Every tenet of the U.N. interim order has been violated. This time ,the Kashmiris were instigated by Pakistan to send women and children forward to shield grenade lobbing militants from Pakistan( Pakistan's Kashmir but still can't be called local Kashmiris).The strategy was --let the poor and desperate get killed so that there will be massive outrage against Indian forces.Indian security outfits have observed extreme restraint which explains some deaths as well as nearly 5.500 personnel getting injured, some gravely so.When an ALL PARTY Delegation went to meet the separatist leaders,they were bluntly told to get away.That shows not defiance but a suicidal terrorist mentality which is seen in Europe and the U.S. these days.It's not India but the Pakistanis and their supporters in Kashmir( who had no future with Pakistan anyway) who is responsible.Don't do anything--we will attack police and snatch their guns and try to burn them alive,do anything against this to protect yourself,we will intensify protests--is their attitude.This is not freedom struggle but terrorism.The soldiers have fired only when the crowd attacked them after coming very close and tried to snatch their weapons,hence the grievous injuries.( Fired at close range after observing extreme restraint,thereby encouraging unwittingly the crowd to come closer).These crowds don't deserve any sympathy.They are asking for this.Just imagine,nearly 600000 Army personnel are stationed there.Couldn't they have killed all Kashmiris,raped their women many times over by now? This has not happened and won't ever happen.Only those who attack the forces are shot at.All Human Rights Activists( conspicuously absent when Kashmiri Hindu women were raped and cut before getting killed due to the torture) have been advising against anything that the forces are forced to used.Even a baton charge is protested but not grenade lobbing by militants.Not molestation of some tourists.There is deafening silence in these cases.And selective silence.Why?
manu_sharma 09/20/2016
4.
What a one-sided article. The article fails to mention the atrocities on the Kashmiri Pandits- since the 1950s this community was targeted by the Kashmiri muslims to leave the state- first by discrimination and then in the 1980s by direct confrontation and terror tactics. The displaced Kashmiri pandits had their homes and life's savings taken away from them. But of course the author will not mention this. The present curfew in Kashmir is because of the increased violence in Kashmir which has the backing of Pakistan. While Pakistan quickly took control over Pakistan occupied Kashmir - even settling outsiders amongst the local population. It has invaded India 4 times since 1947 to get control over Kashmir, and each time it was beaten back. And after a gap of a few years, Pakistan again intensifies its efforts. The Kashmir narrative is not of the Indian govt discriminating against muslims in Kashmir (why, when muslims all over India are happy, are only the Kashmiri muslims being oppressed?) The Kashmir story is of Pakistan using terrorism and Islamic propaganda to further its plans.
neil_shah 09/28/2016
5. not just one-sided; a completely false article
The article is not just one-sided but completely suppressing the real happenings. What were kids aged 8-14 doing at the front of protesters? Did the army / police go to their homes & fired the pellet guns? It is just the 1-2 % people in Kashmir who are funded by Pakistan creating the whole ruckus. By posting the kids in front of the crowd and then pelting stones on security forces. Utterly disappointed with Spiegel for publishing such an article without verifying the basic facts.
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