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From bullets to rocks in Kashmir Add to ...

Crouched in the middle of an intersection littered with broken glass, an Indian paramilitary officer shoulders his rifle and squints down the barrel at a gang of youths shouting insults and throwing stones.

Eleven protesters have died in this kind of standoff in the past three weeks, as angry crowds and security forces clash in the rebellious Kashmir valley. Nobody will die on this sunny day, however: Instead of shooting, the paramilitary officer puts down his rifle and picks up one of one of the stones that rain down on his tin-roofed outpost. He lobs it back at the demonstrators, then sits down in the shade as if waiting for the mob to settle down by itself.

The officer's gesture reflects an important, and somewhat mysterious, development in the conflict that has gripped the mountainous region between India and Pakistan for more than two decades.

This insurgency, once ranked among the deadliest wars in the world, killing tens of thousands of people, has diminished dramatically. The number of deaths in the January-to-May period plunged from 1,183 in 2006 to only 141 this year.

This de-escalation makes Kashmir's unique among the insurgencies in Muslim regions today, as a clash once fought with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades makes a shaky transition to a mainly political dispute. Key battles are no longer decided with bullets but with slogans and hurled stones.

But the conflict doesn't disappear when the shooting stops. India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, gave an eloquent speech in Toronto this week about another fading resistance movement in his country, the struggle for a Sikh homeland, saying that "the challenge is how to move ahead." He faces an even tougher problem with the historic grievances in Kashmir: Two days after his speech, Mr. Singh was back in New Delhi holding an emergency meeting about riots in the valley.

Hundreds of thousands of Indian security forces remain stationed in Kashmir, and they have become notorious: Human-rights groups complain of torture, disappearances, rape and extra-judicial killings. Residents still fear walking the streets without identity cards, and they're increasingly resentful of the heavy security apparatus.

"The difficult thing is now to get the security forces to change their mindsets," Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said. Sipping golden tea in the garden of his home in Srinagar, the state's most senior politician did not pause for any self-congratulation about the declining violence. Instead, he launched immediately into a discussion of the government's struggle to switch gears from counter-insurgency to a more benign system of law enforcement.

"They're used to people coming at them with guns and therefore responding in kind," he said. "Now, people - at least a small section of youngsters - are coming at them with stones. And yet their mindset is still to respond with guns."


The turmoil in Kashmir goes back to its history as a princely state with a degree of autonomy, where the British Empire faded into the Himalayan mountains. After India gained sovereignty in 1947, Kashmiri dreams of independence were quashed as the territory became a battleground between India and Pakistan, which fought three wars and still have not formally agreed on the status of Kashmir.

On the side controlled by India, a flawed election led to an outbreak of political violence in 1989. The insurgency grew throughout the following decade; some analysts say it was fuelled by Pakistan-backed militants who drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan and went looking for a new holy war. Thousands of non-Muslims fled, and insurgents encouraged the Sunni majority to rise against the Hindu-dominated central government.

The conflict reached its peak in 2001 and then began a steady decline, but the denouement has been slow and bitter, marked by demonstrations and riots. Violence is down, but the public's anger has never been more obvious.

Arshad Hussain, a psychiatrist at Srinagar's mental hospital, has a partial explanation. He and his colleagues studied 20 families that suffered losses or trauma in the conflict, and found that Kashmiris are less likely to show signs of post-traumatic stress than might be expected.

People became emotionally resilient, Dr. Hussain said, because they came to see violence as an ordinary facet of their lives.

But now that the situation seems less dangerous, he said, people find themselves able to express emotions they suppressed for years. "The anger is just more visible now."

In a courtyard outside the doctor's office, hospital staff herded a crowd of naked patients under a cascade of water from a roof reservoir, yelling at them to wash.

Some people who have been scarred by the conflict may never recover, Dr. Hussain said. "We have people who will not walk through the downtown. They have nightmares. They even get scared of the television."

The scarred landscape of the city is healing in an equally uncertain way. Cinema halls taken over by the security forces and converted into outposts, festooned with barbed wire, remain as hulking reminders of the Indian military presence. But the piles of sandbags and machine-gun nests on main roads have been replaced in recent years with wood-panelled booths ("like tourist kiosks," a local journalist said, "so they don't scare vacationers") and interrogation centres notorious for torture have been shut down.

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