Altaf Ahmed Butt
In the summer of 2010, a restless tension hung heavy in the air over Kashmir, a land of stunning beauty nestled high in the Himalayas. For years, this picturesque region had been marred by conflict, and 2010 would prove to be a year etched in the collective memory of its people as one filled with turmoil and tragedy.
Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar, once known for its bustling streets and vibrant culture, had been silenced by a cloud of uncertainty. Concertina wire snaked through its arteries, and heavily armed Indian troops patrolled its historic lanes. The city, historically contested, now found itself in the grip of an eerie calm, occasionally shattered by the rumble of armored vehicles.
The residents of Srinagar, like those in every town across the valley, were confined to their homes under round-the-clock curfew. For three long months, shops remained shuttered, businesses deserted, and the usual bustle of life had ground to a halt. The anger simmering beneath the surface erupted as thousands of resident’s defied curfews and harsh restrictions, taking to the streets each day. Stones rained down on symbols of the state’s authority, and pitched battles with the police and paramilitary forces became the norm. Tragically, these clashes resulted in the deaths of over a hundred residents, the majority of whom were teenagers and young adults.
The unrest had its origins in May, when soldiers killed three villagers near the heavily militarized de facto border known as the Line of Control, dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Initially labeled as “terrorists from across the border,” a subsequent police investigation revealed a chilling truth: the villagers had been killed in cold blood by the very soldiers sworn to protect them.
This incident triggered a wave of protests, fueled by the deep-seated memory of extrajudicial killings, torture, and mass repression at the hands of Indian occupation forces. For years, Indian occupation forces had been carrying out Human rights violations, war crimes and enjoying impunity in the name of the global war on terror. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s response, during his visit to the region, came as a shock to many. He appeared to condone the killing of civilians, suggesting that, in difficult times, innocent people sometimes “have to suffer.” The incident, however, brought back haunting memories of unmarked graves in the frontier areas, where locals and human rights groups suspected the remains of nearly 8,000 civilians who had “disappeared” during the harsh and punitive Indian military campaign against indigenous Kashmiri freedom fighters.
The presence of over a million Indian troops stationed in camps across Kashmir served as a constant reminder that the conflict was far from over. The armed militants of the past had now been replaced by a new force: armies of stone-throwing youth. In their eyes, this was a battle of morality, of stones versus bullets. As once a young protester, his face concealed by a cloth mask, summed it up: “When I throw stones at soldiers, I know I’m staring death in the face. How else can I fight for justice without being branded a terrorist?”
Every day, news of unarmed protesters losing their lives continued to pour in. The youth of Kashmir fought with stones during the day and documented their struggle at night, using social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube to mobilize and share their stories with the world. Their aim was to create an archive of their memories for the future, drawing connections with their political history.
In June, a poignant event unfolded when the youth of one Srinagar neighborhood planned a demonstration to remember the victims of a massacre that had taken place seventeen years earlier. In that tragic incident, Indian paramilitary forces had killed twenty-eight unarmed civilians. Authorities clamped down on the area, and during protests in a nearby neighborhood, a schoolboy named Tufail Ahmed Mattoo, lost his life when a teargas canister struck his head. This brutality ignited a firestorm of anger across Kashmir, sparking a cycle of protests and retaliatory killings by Indian occupation forces. It marked the beginning of a new uprising for the right to self-determination, with slogans like “Go India, Go Back” and “We Want Freedom” echoing through the lanes and shuttered shops.
As the intensity of the protests grew, the government called in the army and imposed a siege on populated areas in September. Many voices within the Indian political class began to express outrage over the killings of unarmed Kashmiris. Yet, for those on the streets of Kashmir, the vision of their future was incompatible with India’s. In a population of 14 million, 90,000 civilians had lost their lives in two decades. Stories of torture and human rights abuses were rampant. Soldiers operated under laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) , granting them sweeping powers to deal with suspected offenses. Prosecution of soldiers accused of human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings and rape, required federal government permission, a permission that had never been granted despite hundreds of petitions.
Two decades of military crackdown had transformed Kashmir into a cauldron of bitter memories. Protesters argued that they were subjected to collective punishment whenever they rose in defiance. For them, living honorably in Kashmir meant continuing the fight against India.
But the roots of anti-India sentiment in Kashmir ran deeper than the past two decades of conflict. They stretched back to the region’s cultural and civilizational past, a history distinct from post-independence efforts by the Indian political class to integrate Kashmir with New Delhi. Before the end of British colonial rule, Kashmir had been a place of diverse influences, with connections to Central Asia and Persia. Kashmiris frequently journeyed to places like Bukhara, Tashkent, Samarkand, and Lhasa for trade and spiritual enrichment. Yet, the partition of India in 1947 had abruptly severed these centuries-old ties, isolating Kashmir from Central Asia, Pakistani Punjab, Lahore, and even the part of Kashmir on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control.
The struggle for an envisioned future of Kashmiris with Pakistan and freedom from illegal Indian occupation, underwent a significant transformation in 2008 : Kashmiris discovered the power of peaceful mass protests.
Hundreds of thousands flooded the streets in protest of the Indian government’s decision to transfer a piece of land to Hindu shrine board in the Kashmir Himalayas in 2008. Many feared that this move was aimed at altering the demographics of the Muslim-majority region. Though the deal was eventually revoked, the surge in protests transformed into massive rallies for freedom. These persistent protests forced New Delhi to change its approach, albeit with limited success in ending the cycle of violence.
Fast forward to 2023, and the scars of 2010 still linger in Kashmir’s memory. While the world has moved on, the people of Kashmir continue to bear the weight of those tumultuous days. The events of 2010, marked by youth rising against oppression, have become a powerful narrative in their quest for justice and self-determination. It’s a story that lives on, reminding us all of the enduring resilience of a people who, despite the odds, continue to dream of a future where they can determine their own destiny.
(The writer is Chairman of Jammu Kashmir Voice of Victims and can be reached at email@example.com)