Umar, just 12 years old, sits up in his bed at Sri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital in Srinagar, the main city in the Indian half of disputed Kashmir, straightens his back and slowly turns his head from left to right, as if surveying the other patients. Like Umar, most are wearing dark glasses. Some have their eyes covered with cotton and white surgical bandages that contrast sharply with the blue and purple swelling around their foreheads, eyebrows, noses or ears. In the cases where the eyes are visible, they are impossible to look past: small circular wounds in or around the eyes have rendered them a garish red.
Colors now mean little to Umar, whose life took a tragic turn on July 19 when he accidentally got caught up in a clash between protesters and Indian security forces near his home south of Srinagar. The confrontation in Pulwama district was part of the worst outbreak of unrest in Kashmir in six years, with close to 50 civilians killed and over 2,000 wounded during street battles with police and soldiers. (More than 3,000 security personnel have also been injured in the violence, which triggered military curfews across the bucolic valley and the suspension of mobile and Internet services.)
As Umar tells it, he was on his way to his daily Koran classes when he walked into the path of a protest march. On the other side were Indian troops, trying to push back the stone-pelting crowds with what New Delhi calls “non-lethal” weapons: pump-action guns that unleash hundreds of small metal pellets. These were introduced in Kashmir in 2010 to reduce fatalities. At close range, however, the guns can maim, and sometimes blind, their targets for life.
In Umar’s case, the pellets blinded his right eye, while his left is badly damaged. “Everything went black,” he says, as he recalled being struck in the face and abdomen. Umar is not alone: the wards around him are filled with partially or fully blinded victims of pellet injuries, some under 10 years old. Down the corridor, Danish, a 24-year-old Srinagar native, says the pellets have left him at the mercy of God. As he peeked around a street corner after a daylong curfew was lifted, he came face to face with a paramilitary wielding a pellet gun that burst his left eye. All that remained when he reached SMHS was gooey, bloody residue. Doctors had no choice but to seal the socket, and are struggling to preserve some sight in his right eye. “Many people have come to see me, including from the government,” says Danish. “They have promised help, but they can’t do anything for me.”
Between July 9, when patients began arriving at SMHS, and July 23, the hospital admitted more than 180 people with pellet wounds to the eyes, say doctors. Many have been operated on, with some having to undergo two back-to-back eye operations to salvage even limited sight. “It is more lethal than the weapon you are calling lethal,” says Syed Sujaat Bukhari, editor of Rising Kashmir, a leading Srinagar-based newspaper. “It will give birth to more distress and disaffection in society.”
Kashmir is one of the world’s enduring flashpoints. A de facto border called the Line of Control (LoC) divides the region between India and Pakistan, South Asia’s nuclear-armed rivals, both of which claim Kashmir in its entirety. Since the British quit the subcontinent in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought four wars, of which three have been over Muslim-majority Kashmir. “You’re talking about a decades-long territorial dispute that’s produced multiple wars between two neighboring, nuclear armed nemeses,” says Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington. “It’s a pretty terrifying dynamic.”
The last conflict was in 1999, about a decade after the start of an insurgency in Indian Kashmir that New Delhi blamed Islamabad of sponsoring. Hundreds of thousands of Indian troops poured in to fight the armed militants, adding to an already heavy military presence. Although the violence peaked in the 1990s, some 600,000 Indian soldiers and paramilitary personnel remain, making up what is essentially an occupation force.
The Indian security forces have broad authority to shoot and haul in civilians — and they have been accused of misusing their powers. In a 2015 report, Amnesty International said it had recorded allegations covering “more than 800 cases of torture and deaths in the custody of army and other security forces in the 1990s, and hundreds of other cases of extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances from 1989 to 2013.” The last bout of unrest was triggered by allegations that Indian forces had killed three civilians in a staged gun battle in 2010.
The upshot is a climate of mutual animosity and suspicion that has bred discontent among what is an increasingly young population. Estimates suggest that more than half of Indian Kashmir’s people are under the age of 30. “They have grown up under [India’s] military shadow,” says Khurram Parvez, a Srinagar-based rights activist.
Compared to the bloody days of the 1990s, violence has remained relatively low, as has the number of militants roaming the area, widely thought to be be in the nominal hundreds. But in many cases their backstories are different from the guerrillas of the past. In a troubling development for New Delhi, there are increasing signs of youth from comfortable, educated backgrounds taking up the call of “azadi” or “freedom” from India.
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An iconic example was 22-year-old Burhan Wani, a charismatic militant commander whose killing by Indian forces on July 8 sparked the current unrest. Unlike the insurgents of the previous generation who were trained in Pakistani camps on the other side of the LoC, Wani was homegrown, born in a middle-class family in a south Kashmir household. His transformation from the bright younger son of a secondary school principal to anti-India rebel was triggered, say local reports, by the beating of him and his brother by Indian soldiers. Wani soon built up a devoted following by using social media to reach out to young Kashmiris with images of himself holding up guns and YouTube videos advocating resistance against the Indian security apparatus.
It is unclear if he ever waged a direct attack on Indian forces. Instead, he became a symbol for many disaffected Kashmiris. His funeral attracted as many as 200,000 people, young and old, drawn to Wani’s home village of Tral from towns and villages across Kashmir. That it was the largest such gathering in several years did not go unnoticed. As a prominent pro-India Kashmiri politician remarked on Twitter: “Burhan’s ability to recruit into militancy from the grave will far outstrip anything he could have done on social media.” Bukhari, the Srinagar-based editor, says that while Wani chose “a path that was only going to end one of two ways, with his death or arrest, he also gave vent to the new despondency and frustration among people.”
For Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose priorities have been to boost his country’s economy and international profile, fresh turmoil in Kashmir is an unwelcome challenge. When he came to power in 2014, the Hindu nationalist leader made a show of his outreach to India’s neighbors, including an invitation to Pakistan’s leader Nawaz Sharif to attend his inauguration. Another eye-catching move came in December 2015 when Modi made an unscheduled stopover in Pakistan to greet Sharif on his 66th birthday.
But beyond the theatrics, relations remain strained. Amid continuing protests in Indian Kashmir, officials in New Delhi resorted to what’s a default fallback: blaming Islamabad for the agitation. Unaddressed are growing calls in Indian Kashmir to deal with India’s overbearing military profile in the territory, and for a political solution. “Whatever is happening in Kashmir is Pakistan-sponsored,” India’s interior minister, Rajnath Singh, said during a recent parliamentary debate on the issue. Pakistan, for its part, provocatively declared a “Black Day” to mark the unrest, with Sharif saying: “We are waiting for the day [all of] Kashmir becomes Pakistan.”
As for young Umar, he is simply waiting for the day he can return to playing his favorite game, cricket. A faint smile appears on the face of the wispy boy when he is asked whether he is better at batting or bowling. “Both,” he whispers, lowering his head with embarrassment. The reply forces his father, 35-year-old Nasir Ahmed Shah, to look away. Earlier, doctors gave him the bad news. Umar has permanently lost his sight in his right eye. How much he will be able to see from his left depends on an upcoming operation. With cases such as Umar’s prompting an outcry, the Modi government has told its forces to avoid using pellet guns. Officials have also promised to set up a review to recommend alternatives. For Umar and many other Kashmiris, however, it is already too late.
With reporting by Shafat Farooq/Srinagar