SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - The protesters organize with Facebook, YouTube as well as via messages from local mosques. They eschew violence, but are seething with anger.
They are Indian Kashmir’s new generation of radicalized separatists who are proving a huge challenge to New Delhi by spurring the biggest demonstrations against India in two decades.
“The older generation is tired.” said Zaffar, a 23 year-old student in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, in a street under curfew where dozens of heavily armed police patrolled. “Our generation has understood what the problem is.”
Zaffar was surrounded by similar youths, each recounting a police beating or an abuse at the hands of troops. With text messages blocked by the government and many mobiles mysteriously cut, they often relied on the Internet to communicate.
Protests by hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris in the last month highlight how a younger generation who know little but war are taking the lead and radicalizing a separatist movement that had tentatively talked peace with New Delhi.
In at least two incidents, protesters marched to separatist politicians’ homes demanding they lead them in marches.
This anger may prove a setback for any negotiated solution to a conflict that has already sparked two wars between India and Pakistan, which rule in parts but claim the region in full.
For nearly two decades, politics in Kashmir often appeared to be about residents being caught in crossfire between militants and troops, or about a wider issue of Pakistan-India relations.
Many people kept their heads down in a conflict where at least 43,000 lives were lost. Sporadic protests were quickly squashed in one of the most militarized places on earth.
Then a row over land for Hindu pilgrims suddenly snowballed into protests by hundreds of thousands of people that reminded old-timers of the start of a revolt against Indian rule in 1989.
Police reacted, killing at least 35 protesters in the Muslim Kashmir Valley. At least a thousand people have been wounded. The government says police were fired upon. They say agitators hijacked protests and that ordinary Kashmiris were marginalized.
But for many Kashmiris, the crackdown was a travesty. With local militants declaring a ceasefire to support the protests and editorials in India mulling secession, separatist hopes peaked.
“It is totally indigenous and peaceful,” said Sajad Lone, a separatist involved in talks with New Delhi for years. His father was a moderate separatist leader murdered by suspected militants.
“My generation was anti-India. But this generation hates India,” he added, emphasizing the word “hates.”
“The children of conflict have taken over.”
For years, New Delhi had a mind-set seeing the conflict as a battle against Pakistani-backed militants. Governments pinned hopes on mainstream parties, which back a union with New Delhi.
But the protests put a spanner in the works.
“I don’t think New Delhi has ever seen such huge protests,” said Mehbooba Mufti, president of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), a mainstream party.
“This is a peaceful movement that wants to secede. It has to be taken seriously but New Delhi finds it very hard to make concessions.”
Mainstream parties now appear marginalized. The PDP is perceived to have tilted towards separatism.
“Nobody is ready to believe anyone in New Delhi now,” said Mufti, who still advocates talks with the government.
Separatist leaders, including the main separatist alliance All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference which renounces militant violence, also feel burned after talks with New Delhi.
“Moderates were made into a bunch of jokers,” Lone said. “The credibility of the institution of dialogue was eroded, perhaps irreversibly.”
Lone held talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He published a road map for peace. The result, he says, was a slew of probes by authorities into his affairs, including tax audits, and delays in getting a visa for his Pakistani wife.
On the streets, when Zaffar and his colleagues were asked which leader they admired, many opted for 78-year-old cleric Syed Ali Shah Geelani, for years seen as a marginalized hardliner.
Geelani’s uncompromising stand of refusing to talk to India has in the eyes of many Kashmiris been vindicated, even if they reject his pro-Pakistan stance.
“He perhaps foresaw what would happen to us,” said Lone.
Therein lies a risk of political polarization.
“This young generation is angrier than when I was their age,” said Yasin Malik, who fought as a militant in the 1990s before rejecting violence to campaign for an independent state under his Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front.
He sat up weakly, covered in a blanket in his Srinagar home, his health affected by years in detention and a recent hunger strike. He had just been released from more than a week in jail without charge.
“Like our generation, there is a risk they will get rejected and pushed to violence.”
To ensure peace, many separatists believe there will eventually have to be talks. At the same time they distrust India. It is a contradiction that could take time to solve.
On the streets, there appeared to be no interest in dialogue.
“I‘m not for any political party,” said Malik Sajad, a 20-year-old cartoonist for Great Kashmir newspaper who is planning a graphic novel about the conflict.
“I‘m for freedom. It’s the same idea as 20 years ago. It’s the expression that has changed.”
Additional reporting by Sheikh Mushtaq; Editing by Simon Denyer and Megan Goldin