Anger in Kashmir

Business as usual

Print edition : June 05, 2020

Health officials in Srinagar conducting swab tests for COVID-19 on May 16. Photo: S. Irfan/PTI

The Centre feels no urgency to recalibrate its policies on Jammu and Kashmir or chart out a new course of action for the Valley as the violence continues unabated despite the lockdown.

KASHMIR'S quiet anger over the many incursions of the Narendra Modi years on the erstwhile State has crystallised into an impatient unruliness in the aftermath of the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo. At many places, protests, cordons, rights violation, followed by suspension of communication lines, have emerged as a persistent feature, reminiscent of the summer unrest of 2016, though milder in intensity as COVID-19 tightens its grip.

The regime in New Delhi feels no urgency to recalibrate its policies or chart out a new course of action aimed at abating violence. The chaos and the body count of “Muslim combatants” limn the myth of strong leadership in predominantly Hindu India, thanks to a largely pliant national media that are loath to sensitise people on the real enablers and triggers for home-grown militancy or to question the Modi government over the wreck of mainstream politics in the Himalayan valley, the outcome of the Centre’s “wayward impulses” there.

The Modi government believes that extirpating violent actors from the field will extirpate militancy, but when one looks at the explosion of public outrage after two major encounters that followed in quick succession—the one involving Naikoo, on May 6 in Pulwama, and the one involving Junaid Sehrai, son of the pro-resistance leader Ashraf Sehrai, on May 19 in Srinagar—the fallacy of that belief is exposed.

After the Naikoo encounter in Beighpora village in South Kashmir, hundreds of civilians erupted on to the streets in anger, defying strict restrictions and overcoming their own fear of the pandemic. Scores of men and some police personnel were injured, and the administration was forced to suspend voice calling for the next two days. On May 7, as protests continued in Beighpora and adjoining areas, the security forces, according to the local people, opened fire with live ammunition at the sight of civilian protesters and shot dead a 32-year-old man identified as Jahangir Yousuf Wani.

This widespread sense of marginalisation is excluded from prime-time TV’s grating chatter on Kashmir, which is essentially all about nurturing and selling corrosive myths with the aim of stirring passion among India’s masses and gaining their approval for the high-handed quelling of voices critical of the state. The real questions are not asked. Take, for example, the bulletins on Naikoo on the night of May 6. The following questions ought to have been asked: Why did an unassuming mathematics teacher embrace violence? Why do an increasing number of youths who are neither impoverished nor uneducated become hardened militants? If hard-fisted policies have led to a boost in militancy, why does New Delhi not explore a more resourceful approach, especially when dialogue and reconciliation, which former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave primacy to, yielded so many positives? Is there an agenda behind perpetuating the crisis and is it linked to electoral politics?

The first two questions could be addressed if TV stations operating from Noida’s Film City did not shun the likes of Ghulam Hassan Shah. He is an assistant sub-inspector with the Jammu and Kashmir Police and uncle of 25-year-old Mehraj-ud-Din Shah, who was shot dead by personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force in Budgam on May 13. The CRPF said that an Army convoy was passing through the road adjacent to the one on which Mehraj was driving his car in the wrong direction and that a bullet was fired “fearing a sabotage”. Hassan Shah rubbished the theory. According to him, when they reached the check point at Kawoosa village in Budgam, he was asked to show his identity proof. He alleged that a CRPF jawan fired at his nephew’s chest even as a local policeman had signalled that they could go. Mehraj’s story illustrates Kashmir’s tragedy and India’s moral arbitrariness: how the state is used to treating Kashmiri blood as “cheap”. That it is possible to deny Kashmiris justice. That it is okay to deny them justice.

The eminent author Mirza Waheed said to Frontline: “In Kashmir, India is increasingly behaving like Israel does in occupied Palestine. The punitive destruction of civilian homes, plunder, loot are actions characteristic of a plundering occupying army. Delhi is out to destroy Kashmir, but history tells us Kashmiris will not give up their struggle for self-determination despite the brutal attempts to restructure Kashmiri lives.” He was referring to the May 19 encounter of Junaid Sehrai in old Srinagar’s Kanimazar neighbourhood in Nawakadal, where the security forces damaged or destroyed around 15 houses.

The bloodbath has continued throughout the lockdown. On May 16, head constable Mohamamd Amin was killed in a militant attack at Yaripora in Kulgam, while on May 17, the militant Tahir Ahmed Bhat and a soldier were killed during a security operation in Khotra in the Chenab valley. On May 18, a massive cordon-and-search operation was launched in multiple locations in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, including at Rahmoo, Goosu, Murran and Ashmandar villages. According to the police, 73 militants have been killed in Kashmir in 2020, as many as 28 of them in April.

If the use of brute force was meant to deter militant activity, that did not happen. As per a report the security agencies prepared earlier this year, although home-grown militancy has seen a somewhat downward spiral since August 5, when Kashmir’s special status was revoked, as many as five new recruits join the militant ranks every month. No less than 135 home-grown militants and a total of 250 militants are active, a figure that mocks Modi’s self-applauding over Kashmir. Significantly, at least 20 soldiers have been killed this year, according to data collected by the South Asia Terrorism Portal; the government puts the number at 17.

Director General of Police, Jammu and Kashmir, Dilbagh Singh said during a media interaction on May 5 that anti-militancy operations would be intensified across Kashmir. He pointed out that fresh infiltrations had been reported in Baramulla and many militants were active in Sopore. In a recent interview to an English daily, Inspector General of Police Vijay Kumar said: “Whenever you eliminate the leadership, it will definitely bring down militant recruitment. Youths and their families will realise that violence isn’t an appropriate response to any issue and militants have to face such fate one day.”

The restless voices on the ground defy that notion. This reporter had travelled to the interiors of South Kashmir in the immediate aftermath of the Centre’s August 5 action. In a village called Pinjoora in Shopian, he interacted with an enraged crowd of over 50 youths. “Modi has left us with only two options: to either kill ourselves or fight to the end. Islam doesn’t permit one to commit suicide; we will fight to the end,” one of the young men said (“Insurgency in the air”, October 25, 2019).

Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah attributes the spurt in violence to the Modi government’s policy failure. In an exclusive interview with this reporter soon after the Pulwama terror strike in February 2019, he said: “It is impossible not to make a correlation between the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] coming to power at the Centre and the BJP-PDP [Bharatiya Janata Party-Peoples Democratic Party] alliance forming a government in the State in early 2015, and the deterioration in the situation....

“The Narendra Modi government’s inability to recognise Jammu and Kashmir as a political dispute, coupled with the anger that people [of the State] felt at the betrayal of their mandate for the PDP when the PDP tied up with the BJP and, of course, the manner in which the 2016 protests were handled, all contributed to militancy.”

This view was echoed in a report the Concerned Citizens’ Group brought out in December 2019 prepared by a team led by former Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha. The report underlined the fact that people were of the view that protests and civil disobedience would not move the Centre towards a rethink of its policies on Kashmir and that this might lead to a new phase of militancy.

It is evident that the Modi government is impervious to people’s sufferings. The fulcrum of its politics in Kashmir rests on a matrix of “kill, maim, terrorise and enforce silence”. The recent first information reports against journalists in Srinagar are a testimony to that. But the question is, why would a state be fixated on enforcing silence rather than on redressing a simmering situation?

Perhaps, redress is not desired. Perhaps, denying a salient Muslim population its political voice is seen as redress. Political observers concur that the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), its ideological fountainhead, have a civilisational agenda in Kashmir: to realign its demographics and swamp its culture. With a brute majority in the Lok Sabha and adequate numbers in the Upper House, the BJP-RSS feel that the time is now ripe to implement it. The new domicile law, which enables the influx of settlers from outside the region, is a step in that direction. To ensure that these settlers can be ferried in without fear of reprisal, it is imperative for the Modi government to benumb the natives.

A few piteous cries for justice can still be heard on social media. The BJP’s well-oiled public relations machinery dismisses them as an Islamist concoction. But can everyone in society be a fundamentalist? When a sizeable population yearns to give a passionate rendition of its truth, does that truth not deserve a hearing?

But the Indian masses, it seems, readily accept the blanket denial of the human rights excesses in Kashmir and thereby invalidate the historicity of its struggle. The RSS’ foot soldiers through a decades-long word-of-mouth relaying of provoking messages—an exercise that became easier, swifter and more raucous with the advent of the Internet—have thrust the bogey of a threat to national security and a perceived “Muslim threat” into the discourse on Kashmir to generate an automated apathy for everything that grieves Kashmiris. The travail of the dispossessed, like the families at Nawakadal, is not a part of India’s mainstream.

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