SRINAGAR, India (AP) — After facing three summers of violent separatist protests in Kashmir, the Indian government is trying to prevent another outburst of rage with a new approach: charm.
It’s starting cricket and soccer clubs, holding out the hope of new jobs, and teaching troops to speak the local language as it changes tactics in this Muslim-majority region where residents have long demanded either independence or a merger with neighboring Pakistan.
Simmering discontent has boiled over in past summers, with hundreds of thousands of young men taking to the streets, hurling rocks and abuse at Indian soldiers. Last year alone, 112 people were killed as troops fired live ammunition into crowds, inciting further protests in a deadly cycle of violence that only ended when the cold of winter blanketed this Himalayan region.
“What we are trying to do is to make extra efforts to reach out to the people,” said Lt. Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain, the Indian army’s chief in Kashmir. “To use the heart as a weapon, this is the doctrine.”
The campaign implemented by the widely reviled Indian forces tries to address the more than two-thirds of the Kashmir valley’s 7 million people between 18 and 35 years of age, who grew up in the shadow of a separatist conflict that disrupted life for two decades.
About 68,000 people have been killed in the armed rebellion against Indian-rule that began in 1989 and the ensuing crackdown that has largely crushed the militants.
Schools and colleges were closed for weeks on end and the streets became battlegrounds too dangerous for the impromptu games of cricket and soccer that are the norm across India. For the educated young there are few jobs. The stifled childhood and lack of prospects, along with the overall discontent with Indian rule, have pushed the young men of Kashmir into the streets.
“If dealing with the issues of youth will bring peace to the streets, we’ll have to deal with them,” said Shiv Murari Sahai, a top police officer.
The army is planning a 10-team cricket tournament called the Kashmir Premier League fashioned along the lines of the hugely successful Indian Premier League, currently underway in India.
The local police have already set up at least 10 youth and sports clubs across the region.
Indian authorities are offering young men employment counseling, and soldiers are studying the Kashmiri language to better understand local culture. Indian authorities declined to let reporters witness the events they were sponsoring or the language classes.
In case violence does flare, the government is also training officers in the use of non-lethal weapons and acquainting them with new crowd-control techniques to avoid fatalities.
“We’re proactively doing everything to have a peaceful summer this year,” said Omar Abdullah, Indian Kashmir’s top elected official. “But then we’re acutely aware that even a small untoward incident can spark large protests.”
Experts warn that without a political path toward resolution, the measures may not be enough to subdue the deep anti-India sentiment in Kashmir.
“These measures are about managing the dissent and are an outcome of intense militarization of this place, where certain functions of civilian government have been taken over by police, military and paramilitary forces,” said Wajahat Ahmad, a political scientist at the Islamic University of Science and Technology in Kashmir.
Kashmiri separatist leaders like Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Syed Ali Shah Geelani have vowed to continue their struggle and refused to participate in any dialogue before New Delhi accepts Kashmir as a disputed region, releases political prisoners, revokes harsh emergency laws and announces a plan for demilitarization.
Hilal Ahmed, a young businessman in southern Kashmir’s Shopian town who recently participated in two meetings with army and police officers, said that the youth of Kashmir were looking for more than just sports facilities.
“Everybody knows (the authorities) come to read our minds. We clearly told them that as the government here, they should at least fulfill their basic responsibilities toward us, like all civic amenities,” Ahmed said.
Not far from police headquarters in Srinagar, the region’s main city, a group of young professionals and businessmen hotly debated the government’s latest strategy.
“We aren’t protesting for sports facilities or employment counseling. We demand our political rights and an end to Indian occupation of our motherland,” said Bashir, a computer professional who participated in protests last year.
“Its not my desire to go out there and risk my life in throwing stones. Let them allow us to assemble peacefully and we’ll let the world know what we want,” said Ahmed, a businessman.
Both gave only their middle names for the fear of being identified.
For the moment the new approach seems to be working. Protests are small, few and far between.
“(The) situation has improved,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently said. “But we keep our fingers crossed.”