The Kashmiri capital has been dominated by news of stone-throwing protests this summer, but on India’s Independence Day, Aug. 15, it was a shoe – not a stone – that grabbed the headlines. During the morning’s flag-raising ceremony, a police sub-inspector threw his shoe at Omar Abdullah, the state’s embattled chief minister, while Abdullah stood at attention before the Indian tri-color. The shoe didn’t come close to its target, and the policeman was immediately arrested, but the damage to Abdullah’s already battered reputation was done. Abdul Ahad Jan, the shoe-pelter, meanwhile, became an instant hero, as hundreds later gathered outside his house in support.
A shoe is hurled towards Jammu and Kashmir state Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, right, during Independence Day celebration in Srinagar on Aug. 15, 2010
The brown leather brogue was only the latest indignity for a man with one of the world’s most thankless jobs: as chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Abdullah must try both to sell the Indian government’s policies to Kashmiris, many of whom would like to be rid of India, and to uphold the interests of Kashmiris in the Indian government. The region has endured decades of conflict, not only between India and Pakistan, whose talks over Kashmir have been stalled for nearly two years, but also between Indian forces and an armed militancy, which was put down after 20 years of brutal conflict.
Still, the dream of “azadi,” or freedom, has never quite died, and Kashmiris’ unresolved issues against India have taken a new form: a mass protest movement against the Indian military presence, symbolized by young “stone-pelters.” Over the last two months, they have been in almost daily conflict, and nearly 60 people have been killed since June 11, most of them shot by security forces. As the death toll has risen, so has public criticism of the official response to the riots, but Abdullah’s pleas for calm have been ignored by protestors, and his calls for restraint have not changed the troops’ tactics.
Every death fuels a new round of protests, and the security forces continue to use live ammunition to fire on protestors armed only with stones. “How do we deal with these protests, and deal with them in a way that we don’t lose more lives?” Abdullah said. “Obviously the security forces need to be as restrained as possible.” But as a state official, Abdullah does not have ultimate control over the central government’s security forces, and Kashmiris complain that he seems powerless to control the forces, let alone address protestors’ demands for a withdrawal of troops, the removal of bunkers and the repeal of draconian security measures that have oppressed day to day life in Kashmir for years. “He will not dare to take any step,” says Rashid, a regular among the stone-pelting protestors. “He cannot.”
Central government officials recently advised Abdullah to go out more among the people and show them that he feels their pain. Like his friend Rahul Gandhi, Abdullah is the scion of a powerful political dynasty, the son and grandson of Kashmiri chief ministers. And like Gandhi, Abdullah faces the widespread perception that he is out of touch with the common man. He has tried to reach out. Abdullah went to console families of the injured last week at Srinagar’s largest hospital, where one angry mother caught him by the collar and berated him. The father of the youngest victim, 8-year-old Sameer Ahmad Rah, when asked whether he would want the Indian Prime Minister to visit, said: “Even Omar Abdullah does not bother about us. So how can you talk about Manmohan Singh?” Abdullah insists that he has tried to help this family but acknowledges that he has not met all of them. “Some I’ve done, some I haven’t,” he says. “At this point, my primary focus is trying to normalize things.”
With another week of protests beginning, that seems like a distant goal, and Srinagar is full of speculation about whether Abdullah may soon resign. He insists that he has not considered it. “It’s my responsibility to bring this state as close to normalcy as possible and that’s my immediate priority,” he says. Even if he does step down, at this point, it may have no impact on Kashmiri anger, which is much bigger than just one man. “New Delhi and the media are very keen to put Omar Abdullah on trial,” says Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, leader of a moderate separatist faction. “People know that our problem is not Omar Abdullah; our problem is New Delhi.”