Report from Kashmir

Keeping the conflict alive

Print edition : March 29, 2019

Supporters of the PDP at a protest against the ban on the JeI in Srinagar on March 2. Photo: DANISH ISMAIL/REUTERS

Mehbooba Mufti addressing a protest rally at the Anantnag Dak Bungalow Kashmir on March 6. Photo: Anando Bhakto

A section of the crowd at the protest meeting addressed by Mehbooba Mufti in Anantnag. Photo: Anando Bhakto

Police stop a motorcyclist in Srinagar during strike called by the separatists to protest against the ban on the JeI. Photo: S. Irfan/AP

The Narendra Modi-led NDA government’s policies, including Operation All Out, have only led to further political marginalisation and alienation of Kashmiris, increased home-grown militancy, and the decimation of a political middle ground in the Valley.

The fidayeen attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in Lethpora, Pulwama, on February 14, which claimed the lives of 40 personnel, has raised questions about the efficacy of the Centre’s Operation All Out, the kill-all-militants policy. The Centre’s decision to rely on the use of force two years ago, without any corresponding effort to engage constructively with all the stakeholders of the conflict, was a controversial one. In the aftermath of this colossal tragedy, the opposition, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and independent observers tracking the developments in Kashmir are asking the government some important questions. What was the need to jettison the policy of talks when, at the time Narendra Modi assumed office in 2014, militancy was at an all-time low? Why was the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) allowed a free run to implement its agenda in the adjoining Jammu region, such as its armed marches? Traditionally, the Kashmir and Jammu regions have had competitive political aspirations, and such a free run to the RSS was bound to breed fear and trigger unrest in the Valley. Why, in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killing, when civilian protest intensified and casualties rose steeply, was no healing signal of reassurance sent to the incensed youths of Kashmir? At a time when there was a heightened atmosphere of insecurity, uncertainty and alienation in the Kashmir valley, did the ruling party’s hardened stand on Kashmir not fuel unrest? The actions of the Centre during the past three weeks demonstrate that it is not willing to consider these questions or make an assessment of its own policies, introspect, take multiple opinions on board and chart out new initiatives.

This was manifest in its decision to withdraw the security of Hurriyat and other “pro-resistance” leaders, conduct raids at their residences and incarcerate Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) leaders before banning the organisation for five years. The government scaled up cordon-and-search operations (CASO) in the villages when, clearly, the need of the hour was to address the sense of alienation. The use of rhetoric against Pakistan made it amply clear that the Narendra Modi-Ajit Doval duo have not learnt any lessons from the past.

The Centre continues to hurt its own interest in Kashmir by mounting attacks on mainstream regional leaders. Recently, after National Conference (NC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leaders raised their voices against the ban on the JeI, Governor Satya Pal Malik launched an over-the-top reprisal, obliquely referring to them as “anti-nationals”. Kavinder Gupta, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and former Deputy Chief Minister, went so far as to demand the arrest of Mehbooba Mufti. This tendency to push mainstream politicians in Kashmir to the wall without realising that it would further destabilise the fragile climate in the Valley indicates that the Centre is keen to carry on with its strong-arm policies in Kashmir irrespective of their grave and tragic consequences.

An objective assessment of the Centre’s handling of the Kashmir issue over the past five years, in particular after the BJP started dominating its ally PDP and gained control of the State government, reveals that the harsh use of force only bred more militancy rather than contained it. The number of active militants in Kashmir continues to hover around 280 to 300 despite an increasing number of militants having been killed, including top-ranking militant commanders, in the past two years after Operation All Out was launched in January 2017.

It was hoped that the Lethpora tragedy would goad the Centre to chart a more prudent course of action based on the insight that in post-Burhan Kashmir, young boys were willing to take to the gun at the slightest provocation. That would have required building on past lessons and successes made during the tenures of former Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, both of whom focussed on minimising fissures in India-Pakistan ties and explored areas of agreement with the separatist leadership in Kashmir. Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh acknowledged the inherent political dimension of the conflict and did not view it solely as something instigated by Pakistan or an outcome of unfulfilled economic aspirations that could be addressed by doling out economic packages.

Their policy was in agreement with what George Fernandes had observed way back in 1990, at the onset of insurgency in Kashmir. “I do not believe that any foreign hand engineered the Kashmir problem. The problem was created by us, and if others decided to take advantage of it, I do not believe that one should make that an issue; given the nature of politics of our subcontinent, such a development was inevitable,” Fernandes had said at the time. He underlined the point that while Pakistan’s role in destabilising Kashmir could not be denied, New Delhi’s own repression and political manoeuvres in Kashmir—be it cracking down on the Hurriyat or its concerted efforts to weaken the structure of the State government by propping up puppet regimes such as the one led by Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad who replaced Sheikh Abdullah as Prime Minister in 1953 or the one by Ghulam Mohammad Shah who ascended to power after Farooq Abdullah’s government was unceremoniously dissolved in 1984—were squarely responsible for the armed rebellion and street protests.

Centre against reconciliation

Post Lethpora, opposition leaders in Kashmir had only one line of advice for New Delhi: check the drift towards belligerence, adopt a conciliatory approach towards Pakistan and the Hurriyat, and downgrade the use of force. Mehbooba Mufti told this reporter that militancy would end only when alienation ended as militancy thrived on local support. The people, she argued, needed “healing”. But the Centre is far from recognising the legitimacy of such a mechanism.

There seems to be an attempt on the part of the BJP to cement Modi’s image as being unrelenting on Kashmir and unforgiving on Pakistan. This image is limned and eulogised unrepentantly by prime time television programmes. While such a “nationalist” and “viraat Hindu” image of the Prime Minister could help his party leverage a desired election outcome in the coming months, it has dangerous ramifications for Kashmir, including the possible recurrence of Pulwama-like suicide attacks. Mehbooba Mufti shared the same apprehension. She pointed out that Kashmir was being “milked” for electoral dividend without the realisation that this was leading to a divide between “Muslim-majority Kashmir versus India which is predominantly Hindu”.

Hounding of separatists

Soon after the February 14 terror attack, the Jammu and Kashmir administration withdrew the security cover for the top five separatist leaders, including APHC chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Abdul Ghani Bhat, Bilal Lone, Hashim Qureshi and Shabir Shah. On February 26, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) conducted raids at the residences of the Mirwaiz; Naseem Geelani, son of Syed Ali Shah Geelani; and Ashraf Sehrai. There were reports in the media that the raids exposed a “Pakistan hotline” at the Mirwaiz’s residence.

Many in Kashmir’s corridors of power feel that an organised crackdown in the Valley is part of the government’s plan to divert attention from its failure to deal a decisive blow to Pakistan militarily or diplomatically.

Although the government portrayed Pakistan’s decision to free Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who bailed out in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir after his aircraft was shot down on February 27, as a diplomatic success over its nuclear neighbour, it was subjected to embarrassment after several foreign news agencies published well-documented reports debunking the “300 terrorists killed in Balakot” claim that was floated by a section of the media and that the government seemingly endorsed through its calculated silence.

The Mirwaiz dismissed the “Pakistan hotline” claim while talking to this reporter on the phone from his residence in Srinagar, where he is under house arrest. “First of all, the NIA has no jurisdiction in Jammu and Kashmir and these raids were illegal.... I have a fixed landline connection from a private server based in Lal Chowk, Srinagar, and it is outlandish on the part of the media to call it a Pakistan hotline,” he said.

Counter-productive crackdown

The withdrawal of the security cover for the separatist leaders has triggered speculation in the Valley. For some time, there has been a persistent feeling in the Valley that the current dispensation at the Centre is “not comfortable” with the “very presence of pro-resistance leadership”. The speculation intensified after People’s Conference leader Sajjad Lone said that he lost his father Abdul Ghani Lone, a prominent Hurriyat leader, after his security was lowered. Abdul Ghani Lone was assassinated in 2002 during a rally in Srinagar. Such speculation does not augur well in the volatile sociopolitical landscape of Kashmir where militant recruitment is at its peak. Both the Vajpayee dispensation and the Manmohan Singh regimes were pragmatic. They constructively engaged with Pakistan and the separatists and facilitated the latter’s travel to that country. The situation in Kashmir ameliorated consequently.

The Centre, instead of addressing the antagonistic sentiment in the Valley, escalated the cordon-and-search operations, demonstrating its continued belief in the myth of the superior virtue of the military and its ability to deal with insurgency. Following the Pulwama strike, the security forces carried out three major encounters in Kashmir—in Kulgam on February 24; in Handwara beginning on March 1; and in Tral on March 5. Casualties were reported from both sides. At Turigam in Kulgam, while three Jaish-e-Mohammed militants were killed, one Deputy Superintendent of Police, Aman Thakur, and an Army jawan also lost their lives. In Khanan Babgund, Handwara, three CRPF personnel and two J&K police personnel were killed in the line of duty and a civilian was killed in “crossfiring”. Only two militants were eliminated.

The return of CASO has bred fear across the valley. In Anantnag, Bijbehara, Awantipora and Pulwama, several people told this reporter that Kashmir seemed to be descending back to the “lawless” days of the 1990s when youths were picked up randomly in nocturnal raids. In Monghama village in Pulwama, the cousin of a civilian who was killed during an encounter on December 15 said that while no compensation was given to any of the seven civilians who died in firing that day, young boys were being detained. On March 4, this reporter saw a handful of village youths outside an Army camp near the Awantipora Air Force Station. Local residents revealed that in a raid in Malangpora village the previous night, the identity cards and mobile phones of these boys were confiscated. They were summoned to the Army camp for interrogation. A local resident, after much prodding from this reporter to share his experiences under CASO, had this to say: “We live in a police-military state. These boys will likely be beaten up, and if they are not beaten up, they will be most certainly abused. This is the terror we live under; it is not difficult to imagine why young boys are picking up the gun.”

Religious sentiment offended

There is apprehension among Kashmir’s mainstream political leaders as well as in the separatist camp that with the crackdown on the JeI, the unrest in Kashmir will enter a fraught phase. On the intervening night of February 22 and 23, nearly 150 people, most of them topmost office-bearers of the JeI, including its emir Abdul Hamid Fayaz, were detained. Mushtaq Ahmad Veeri, vice president of the Jamiat-e-Ahle-Hadith, was also arrested. The Centre then imposed a five-year ban on the JeI on February 28. As feelings of religious marginalisation began to take root among a section of Kashmiris, the crackdown on clerics continued. Two important clerics in the militant hotbed of Tral, Maulana Noor Ahmad Trali, the chairman of Darul Uloom Noor Ul Islam, and Ghulam Nabi Molvi, Khateeb of Jamia Masjid Dardsara, were arrested on the intervening night of March 2 and 3. On March 3, raids were conducted on the offices and houses of JeI leaders and activists in Kishtwar, Doda, Ramban, Poonch, Rajouri and Jammu districts.

According to Suhail Bukhari, media adviser to Mehbooba Mufti, a cleric belonging to the Barelvi sect was also put behind bars. The Ministry of Home Affairs, which banned the JeI under Section 3 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), accused the organisation of being “involved in anti-national and subversive” activities “intending to cause disaffection”. But the perception on the ground is that New Delhi wants to eliminate all shades of political thought in Kashmir that are not concurrent to its own. Suhail Bukhari told Frontline that there was little evidence to justify the charges levelled against the JeI. “The government should put all the evidence against the JeI in the public domain. Is there even an FIR against the Jamaat leaders who have been booked?” he asked.

Widening divide

Political observers in Kashmir share Mehbooba Mufti’s concerns of an emerging “Muslim Kashmir versus a predominantly Hindu India” sentiment. They believe that the ban on the JeI will heighten that sentiment. Although the influence of the JeI is concentrated in Shopian and pockets of Kulgam and Anantnag, the ban on it has evoked an across-the-board resentment in the Valley. Many are viewing it as an assault on Islam per se. This sentiment manifested itself when Mehbooba Mufti held a protest rally at Anantnag’s dak bungalow on March 6. The 3,000-strong crowd that gathered at the venue got worked up each time the former Chief Minister roared “Imamo ki giraftari nahi chalegi” (Arrests of imams are just not done).

An emir-e-halqa of the JeI in Srinagar, who is currently underground, told this reporter that the ban on the JeI can only be read as the BJP’s attempt to establish the supremacy of Hindutva over other ideologies. The objective, he said, was to stir up the passion of the majority community before the upcoming general election. Abdul Rashid, a retired headmaster of a government school in Chorsu village in Pulwama, told Frontline that “banning the JeI is akin to banning Islam” as it directly infringed on one’s right to practise one’s religion. The cousin of a most wanted militant, who met this reporter at a village in Pulwama under the condition that neither his name nor his militant cousin’s name nor the name of the village would be revealed, said that the crackdown on the JeI had ignited unbridled rage against India in Jamaat-affiliated villages and it was waiting to explode. The man, who was in his mid 20s, said: “When people assembled at the village mosque for their first Friday prayer after the ban on the JeI, their frustration and anger was palpable. There’s a feeling that it is perhaps time for ‘war’.” His father, a JeI sympathiser, was recently arrested during a midnight raid. According to him, the crackdown on the JeI was not a sudden one. “Since October, people associated with the Jamaat were being summoned to police stations once every fortnight or month.”

Raids & detentions

Post Pulwama, these cycles of raids and detentions, which are almost always made without regard to procedures, have become a constant feature in interior south Kashmir. Ghulam Thokar, a Jamaat follower and the father of the slain Hizbul Mujahideen militant Tawseef Ahmad Thokar, was picked up from his home at Bonapora muhalla in Chorsu, Pulwama, on March 1. His family narrated what it means to be associated with JeI in the present circumstances. “At around 10 p.m.,” said Nawaz Sharif, Ghulam Thokar’s younger son, “the police barged into our house and detained my father.... in the days that followed, the members of the Auqaf committee of the village and the village development committee went to Awantipora S.P. Tahir Saleem to plead for my father’s release. But despite a favourable response from Saleem, my father is yet to be released.” Ghulam Thokar is a retired headmaster of the Government High School in Padgampora village in Awantipora.

The combination of political marginalisation of Kashmiris and a perceived insult to their religious sentiment has created a dangerous trajectory in Kashmir. According to a senior leader of the PDP, it is in the BJP’s interest to maintain the brisk momentum of militancy in Kashmir. “Kashmir may not be significant electorally but it has the potential to impact the larger electoral canvas in India. When there is a militant surge, it becomes easier to demonise Kashmiris and project them as the ‘other’, and more often than not as Pakistanis. A crackdown on Kashmiris then appears like a crackdown on Pakistan, and this works as a magnet to the home audience,” the PDP leader said.

The PDP leader explained why the ban on the JeI will not end the spurt in militant recruitment. “The militancy in Kashmir is not cult-based but sentiment based. The more New Delhi cracks down on separatist leaders and clerics, the more anger and resentment will swell on the ground, creating a climate conducive to insurgency.”

He lamented the Centre’s failure to recognise the importance of the JeI as a buffer to militancy. “The Hizbul Mujahideen was once regarded as the armed wing of the JeI. In the past 30 years, since insurgency began in 1989, things have come a long way. The JeI now advocates a political resolution to the Kashmir conflict. By pushing it to the wall, New Delhi is unwittingly working towards restoring the JeI-Hizbul nexus,” he said.

There is also the apprehension that belligerence towards the Jamaat may impel this socio-religious and political organisation to prioritise the Kashmir conflict. From the time when the JeI (also known as Jamaat-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir, or JIJK) splintered from its parent Jamaat-e-Islami Hind in 1953, its primary objective, under its founder emir Sad-ud-din Tarabal, has been to spread Islamic consciousness. “Ending New Delhi’s rule” is a part of its objective, but not its sole focus. Although the JeI has traditionally advocated Jammu and Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan, it refrained from endorsing the armed struggle against the state. In 1984, when the National Liberation Front militant Maqbool Bhat was hanged, the JeI declined to grant him “martyr” status. When Syed Ali Shah Geelani extended support to militancy in the late 1980s, he was suspended from the JeI with no consideration given to his seniority or prominence.

However, the current crackdown may act as inducement to the JeI to radically jettison that position. If that happens, it will further boost militancy in the JeI dominated pockets of south Kashmir. Paradoxically, the ban on the JeI can expand the sphere of its influence. History shows it took only little provocation to transform people’s ideological moorings in Kashmir. For example, Sad-ud-din Tarabal and other pioneering leaders of the JeI, such as Maulana Ghulam Ahmad Ahrar and Hakim Gulam Nabi, were from a Sufi background who switched to Jamaat after the perception of Hindu chauvinism grew during 1947 and 1952. In 1952, at a rally in Jammu, Sheikh Abdullah had questioned India’s commitment to secularism, before beginning to explore the option of an independent Kashmir. “I had told my people that their interests were safe in India, but educated, unemployed Muslims look towards Pakistan, because while their Hindu compatriots find avenues in India open for them, Muslims are debarred from getting government service,” he said at that rally.

The perception of Hindu chauvinism is once again growing in Kashmir. And this time it appears to be far more deeply entrenched, given the BJP’s brute majority in the Lok Sabha and its direct control over the Valley. Referring to Kashmir with belligerent statements and using it for electoral ambitions will inexorably push it to disaster. Lethpora was perhaps the beginning.