SRINAGAR, India (AFP) — A new wave of deadly unrest in Indian Kashmir is a reminder that a peace process between India and Pakistan has failed to alleviate the frustrations of the region's Muslims, residents say.
They hope the massive protests will force New Delhi to admit it has not won "hearts and minds" in its part of the disputed Himalayan territory -- despite claims it has -- and accept the root causes of the conflict must be addressed.
"The protests are the manifestation of an anger that the peace process doesn't seem to have achieved anything," said Noor Ahmed Baba, a political science professor in Indian Kashmir's main university.
"The peace process has not addressed the concerns of Kashmiris. They want to see an end to uncertainty. They want a resolution of the Kashmir dispute," he said. "The protests are serious and should serve as a wake-up call."
In 2003, India and Pakistan agreed to a ceasefire along the heavily militarised Line of Control that cuts though Kashmir, a region they each hold in part but claim in full.
A year later the nuclear-armed neighbours launched what has turned out to be an extremely slow-moving peace process.
The dialogue was supposed to address all bones of contention, including the status of Kashmir, but has remained bogged down in mutual recriminations over cross-border militancy and terror attacks.
For ordinary Kashmiris, that means they still have to live with a massive Indian army and paramilitary contingent that is visible on almost every road, street corner or hill top of a part of the world once known as the "Switzerland of the east."
Indian security forces are regularly accused of brutalising locals, and a recent scandal saw several soldiers accused of murdering civilians and passing them off as Islamic militants as a way of winning bonuses or promotions.
India remains unwilling to acknowledge that Kashmir is even "disputed," let alone consider giving it some autonomy.
The latest protests, which have left close to 20 dead by police firing in two days, were sparked by a decision by the Jammu and Kashmir state government to award land to a Hindu pilgrimage trust.
The order was rescinded after a first wave of protests by Muslims, only to spark rioting and a blockade by Hindu extremists who dominate the south of the state.
On Monday and Tuesday, demonstrations by Muslims over the punishing blockade -- which is threatening financial ruin for fruit growers -- were met with Indian gunfire.
"Firing on protesters speaks of Indian double-standards. In Jammu, three protesters were killed during several days of curfew, but in the (Muslim) Kashmir valley, six people are martyred on the very first day of a curfew," said one Kashmiri protester, Showket Ahmed, a university student.
"They love to kill Muslims," he said of the Indian police and soldiers.
"After these shooting incidents we have lost whatever love we had for Indians," added housewife Haleema Akhter, as witnesses also reported Indian police beating injured protesters who were being taken to hospital in ambulances.
India is now being hit by some of the biggest protests since the Kashmir insurgency erupted in 1989, and facing the end of years of relative calm brought about by the peace process and ceasefire along the Line of Control.
Separatists say their struggle, which was only recently described by India as burning out, has been given a major boost.
"The rising pro-freedom protests will definitely give impetus to the freedom struggle," hardline separatist Syed Ali Geelani told AFP.
"What we are seeing is the revival of the separatist movement in Kashmir, which had been in a dying stage," agreed Tahir Mohiudin, an editor of the leading Urdu weekly Chattan.
"Firing on unarmed civilians will alienate people further and serve the cause of separatists," he said.
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