Kashmir: Rape and Murder Cases Touch off Anti-India Anger

Article excerpt

"Azadi!" - freedom! - yell the angry young men gathered in the road running through Shopian, an orchard-fringed village in Indian- occupied Kashmir.

Protests like this have spread across the state since the recent rape and murder of two young women here - and suspected involvement of security forces.

But as the shouts of youths here suggest, the demonstrations have become about more than justice for two murdered women. They have tapped into the continuing desire for freedom from Indian rule here in the country's only Muslim-majority state.

Government response angers locals

Immediately after the bodies of two young Muslim women, Nilofer Shakeel and Asiya Jan, were found here on May 30, locals suspected the involvement of security forces from nearby bases.

Anger rippled through the state when, only days after the incident, the state's chief minister, Omar Abdullah, said medical tests indicated the women had been neither raped nor murdered. Later forensic tests showed that they had, and Mr. Abdullah ordered a high level judicial inquiry into the crimes.

But by then the murders had triggered statewide protests. At least two people were killed and hundreds wounded. In Shopian this week, the protests continue.

This week, authorities said they would follow the recommendations of an interim report from the inquiry and suspend four police officers for destroying evidence and "dereliction of duty." The final report is due at the end of the month.

In Shopian, people say they will continue to protest until the culprits are locked up. "So far, the authorities have done nothing to help us at all," says Shakeel Ahmed, Ms. Shakeel's wretched- looking husband as he sits at home. Nearby, village children have gathered to play with the couple's toddler.

Desire for independence persists

In recent years the Kashmir Valley - once described by former United States President Bill Clinton as the most dangerous place on earth - has been relatively peaceful. The calm came largely due to renewed peace talks between India and Pakistan, which both rule portions of Kashmir but claim it in its entirety, as well as the adoption by many separatist groups of nonviolent means of agitation.

But most people in the state still yearn for freedom from Indian rule. Last year, a government plan to transfer land to a Hindu shrine in the state sparked the biggest pro-independence protests since the early 1990s.

Any crime that is suspected to involve security forces - an omnipresent reminder of Indian rule - tends to be seized upon by separatist groups. Despite the relative calm, some 600,000 security forces remain stationed in Kashmir. Their presence is bitterly resented.

"After the transition from violence to nonviolence in the separatist movement there is no need for the deployment of so many security forces in the villages," says Yaseen Malik, a separatist leader and former fighter. …