Srinagar: Capital of Conflict in Kashmir

Features by
John Miller
John Miller

Since the end of British rule in India in 1947, a territorial dispute between Pakistan and India has left the Kashmir Valley in continuous conflict. Despite some political divisions in the population, which is predominantly Muslim, the majority of Kashmiris want independence from India, and would like to see the regions of Jammu and Kashmir become a single, independent state.

The Indian government has worked hard to find solutions to this serious internal crisis, especially after pro-independence demonstrations erupted this past summer. Every effort to calm Kashmiris has proven futile, resulting in further unrest in the disputed territories.

The Indian response has been repression and reprisal in order to gain control over the violent demonstrations and establish order. Recent protests in the capital, Srinagar, have led to the imposistion of a 24-hour curfew, and security forces have been given shoot-on-sight orders for violators  This approach is fuelling the crowd’s resentment, leading to a vicious cycle of violence.

Overall, media reports on the conflict in Kashmir have been incomplete because curfew exemptions are not permitted to reporters. Journalists have pressed the army for passes, but to no avail. Historiclly, there has been a wide discrepancy in death tolls in Kashmir. For example, official Indian estmates claim that between 1989 and 2002, the death total  was around 40,000, whereas the Hurriyat Conference—a coalition of pro-independence and pro-Pakistan groups—claim it is closer to 80,000.

On July 30, 2010, John Miller*, a British citizen, went to Kashmir to complete an important Hindu pilgrimage, the Amarnath Yatra, located 140 kilometres away from Srinagar. Miller was one of few tourists to venture into this part of the world this year, and the only foreigner to do the pilgrimage in the past four years. The following is a compilation of a few of his journal entries. Although never intended for publication, these entries offer a first-hand account of the ongoing chaos in Srinagar.


An article published by Kashmir Media Services on July 31 described the situation Miller was about to encounter.

“Srinagar, July 31: In occupied Kashmir, the authorities have announced imposition of curfew in [the] entire  Kashmir Valley to prevent people from holding protests against the killings of four civilians by police and CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] men on Friday. […] Four persons were martyred and over 200 injured on Friday when Indian troops and police personnel resorted to firing, heavy baton charge and excessive tear gas shelling to disperse protesters in Sopore and Pattan areas.”


July 30

I am now in Srinagar. Things are horrendous here. The streets are filled with thousands of militants and the Indian army. I’m really getting worried, and I think it was fucking stupid to come here. We need to get across the whole city by car to get to the road to Pahalgam. Rioters are everywhere. We have had to drive through two big protests so far, and at each the others in the car have covered my head and laid me down. Stones have been flying at the car and people have been throwing themselves against it. When we got through the second protest, we thought we were clear but saw cars with smashed windscreens and injured people coming towards us. Chaos was reigning, and blood was oozing over the ground. The protestors were fleeing across the fields.

I have just seen a boy no older than eight or nine, too small to outrun the army, being beaten by a soldier. He was held up against a van and was slapped across the face, and the soldiers wouldn’t let him fall to the ground. My request to stop was ignored and we drove on. I knew it was going to be bad, but this is brutality like I have never seen.  

As I am writing this I am about 10 kilometres down the road from where I just saw the poor boy being beaten. We have been stopped but the army says there is more danger ahead. Five trucks full of heavily armed troops have just gone past.

The two people that I am traveling with have been praying to their Lord Shiva. I am not scared, I just feel very stupid for doing all of this. We are now in a particularly shit position. We have gone too far to turn back and the only hope for safety tonight is down this road. The army has told us that if nightfall comes and we still can’t get through then we will go through in an army truck to a police and army barracks and spend the night with guards set up outside.

Just this minute a man has told me that five people have been killed and many more injured. Ambulances are zooming past, away from the carnage. There are injured people in the back of pickup trucks caked in blood trying to get into the centre of Srinagar, going away from the riots.

Even within writing that last paragraph, more news came. A boy has been killed. I hope to God that it wasn’t the boy I saw.

We have been told that the road behind is clear so we are heading back to North Srinagar. I was offered a flight back to Delhi this evening but I have refused. I want to do this, and now I can safely say I understand the risks.

I leave at 4 a.m. tomorrow, heading along the same route that we tried yesterday until we were stopped. We hope the road will be clear, and tonight they pray for our safety. International news is now covering what’s going on here. What am I doing here?

It’s likely that tomorrow the riots will be even bigger after the death of a child. It’s whether or not we can get through before they start. Getting back is a whole other story, but I will cross that bridge if and when it comes.


On July 24, OneIndia News published an article about an attempted terrorist plot targeted at Amarnath Yatra, a week before Miller completed the pilgrimage.

“Jammu, July 24: A plot by militants to disrupt the ongoing Amarnath Yatra was on Friday, July 23 foiled by the Indian Army. Army personnel who were conducting a search operation near the Jammu-Srinagar highway in the Banihal area of Ramban district recovered a large quantity of arms and ammunition.

Giving the details of the operation, [a] defence spokesperson said that the personnel recovered a gunny bag hidden in a hollow of a tree around 7:30 a.m.

The bag had 34 detonators, 12 anti-personnel mines, nine RC IED boxes, 36 IED circuits, five RPG charges, 36 metres of safety fuse, 15 metres of cordex wire, one UBGL grenade, one hand grenade, and 36 pika rounds, the spokesperson added.”


July 31

Today was not a success. There is another path up to Amarnath cave, which is only 28 kilometres rather than 68, so we decided last night that we would head that way instead. Again, the streets are completely deserted except for the military. We got about 15 kilometres and then were stopped once again by the army. More protests, more rock throwing, more beatings, more bodies. Luckily, today I did not see anything nearly as bad as yesterday, just soldier-filled trucks heading to the trouble. It turns out that the place at which we were stopped yesterday was burnt to the ground, at one point we were going to stay there. It was burnt down at 5 a.m., around the time we had planned to get there this morning. Something is on my side.

All these men are talking or arguing all day about our plans and nothing is in English. I’m being
kept in the dark which is really infuriating. When I ask a question the answers are vague and indefinite. It’s one thing being in a situation like this, it’s another thing being in a situation like this when you don’t know your arse from your elbow because all the arrangements and risk assessments are being done in Hindi.

The news covers the army building burnt down and says nothing about the atrocities committed by troops. The headline reads “Army station burnt down, 6 killed.” What it doesn’t mention is that the “6 killed” were not soldiers, they were four children, one man, and one woman murdered during the protests.

I have received another bit of news which I just cannot get out of my head: the boy I saw being beaten was one of the four children killed. Just moments later the scumbag shot the poor boy. How can any man do that? I am trying to forget it but for the time being I can’t stop picturing it, and it just fills me with rage. Nine years old! Killed in cold blood. I hope that coward of a soldier shakes hands with death very, very soon. I’m going to stop writing about it, I am just thankful I did not see the whole thing.

I have one last chance tomorrow to do the pilgrimage and I am going to take it. We will leave at 4 a.m. We drive to Baltal camp, and start walking straight away. The two guys I’m with will get a horse but I am determined to do it on foot. The slopes are steep and icy anyway, and I don’t see how a horse is any safer. So that’s the plan, up and down in a day.


On August 1, the BBC’s Chris Morris reported that an army building was blown up the same place  where Miller was going to stay overnight.

“At least nine people have been killed in violent clashes between local residents and police and paramilitary forces in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Four of them died when a police station was set alight near Srinagar and its explosives dump blew up.

Locals were angry that police had opened fire on a demonstration against Indian rule, killing two participants.

In nearby Pampore, at least three protesters were killed after Indian forces opened fire.

Thirty-two people have now been killed in clashes with police and paramilitary forces in the Kashmir valley in the last seven weeks.”


August 2

I did it yesterday and still cannot really believe it. The early morning drive was a good idea, we got through but you could sense an attack on the army was imminent. The people were truly amazing on the pilgrimage.

There are people from different social classes, from doctors or judges being carried up to 70 year olds with no shoes slowly making the ascent. I even saw an amputee on crutches heading towards the cave. It is fascinating to see their willingness to sacrifice for what they believe in. This walk is bloody hard. They chant what translates as “Shiva is waiting” and “God bless you.” But this determination is not exclusive to these pilgrims, the Kashmiris show the same grit. They are prepared to martyr themselves and put their families at risk for what they believe in. Somewhere in this, admiration must be granted.

It took nearly five hours to get back down, as the slopes were severe and the horses tired. The drops are over 1,000 metres in some places and the horses were right on the edge. We got back around 8 p.m. and tried to leave, but the army has stopped anyone from leaving. On the road back to Srinagar, where we drove through yesterday morning, the protest that I wrote was going to happen left another 11 dead.

I am writing this now from a shelter in this camp. We had to stay the night and I really want to get out of here. Hygiene is becoming an issue. I have been wearing the same clothes for six days now, and other than some nuts, haven’t eaten in two days. There are no running water facilities and no toilets.

Hopefully the army will let us through at some point tonight and it will be possible to get to the airport. People are getting frustrated with waiting. I am so close yet so far from getting out of here.

It is now evening and we are still stuck here. It turns out that there have been two killings in another one of the towns we pass through. This place is turning very volatile. People are getting very angry, and verbal abuse is already starting towards the soldiers. Some think it’s  only a matter of time before things turn violent.

It’s a terrible situation here, over 4,000 people are stuck and the army is doing nothing. There are old women and children and at no point has the army come to see if they are alright. Some people don’t have enough money for food. I’m doing what I can but I am no saint. The army should be helping.

 

August 2, Midnight

Stroke of luck! We were allowed out at midnight. We made it back to Srinagar around 4 a.m. and left for the airport around 6 a.m. just to make sure we got here because the army has been closing the road quite often. With a little bit of luck, I will be in Delhi this evening.

 



The New York Times’ Lydia Polgreen wrote on August 4:

“Dozens of people have died this summer in violence in Kashmir […] and the unrest has prompted new questions about the state’s leaders ability to control the restive region. Despite the security forces’ shoot-on-sight orders to enforce curfews aimed at cooling rage on the streets, thousands of people openly took to the streets Wednesday, to no apparent consequence.

[…]

The violence reached such a peak that even separatist leaders, who often urge young protesters on to the streets, appealed for calm and an end to the burning of government property.”



August 3

I am very glad that I have come here, seen what I have seen, and done what I have done. I knew this would be something a tad different and something I would hold with me for life. I’m not sure how I would even begin to tell people about this, and if truth be told, I don’t want to.

Enough of this, I will be on a plane soon enough I hope, and without jinxing anything, I have made it out in one piece. Cheers Shiva.

*John Miller is a pseudonym