Cover Story

Total alienation

Print edition : May 26, 2017

In Srinagar’s Lal Chowk, students clash with security forces on April 17. Photo: TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

Kashmir’s youths come out on the street in support of the militants and challenge the Indian state which they feel has been insensitive to their concerns.

ON May 4, a few thousand troops threw a ring around 20 villages in south Kashmir’s Shopian district. It was the first such “show of strength” in more than one decade against the militancy, but the message was also for the civilians that their support for the militants would not be tolerated. The way the Army and the police moved into the area reminded one of a situation in the early 1990s when militants had almost wrested “power” from the state and were roaming freely. The scene is not much different today, but the significant dynamic that those in authority need to take note of is that the people at large are against the anti-militant operation and are also doing everything they can to help the militants escape. This particular operation did not yield much, though an attack on an Army patrol left a civilian taxi driver (hired by the Army) dead and five soldiers injured.

As a top security official put it: “The message was conveyed.” An operation like this was in the offing for some time as south Kashmir was seen in the recent past as a bastion of militants. Ironically, it was until recently the stronghold of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which won all the seats from Shopian and Pulwama districts in the 2014 Assembly elections. The Army operation also reflected how difficult the situation was in the region. Politicians have refrained from visiting south Kashmir, fearing attacks from militants or protests by people, though Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti managed to visit the families of slain policemen in Kulgam on May 3 amidst heavy security. (The policemen were escorting a cash van of J&K Bank when they, along with some bank employees, came under attack.) Not many people were able to visit the family of ruling PDP district president Abdul Gani Dar, who was killed by militants recently. However, those responsible for VIP security said Ministers and senior politicians had themselves “abandoned the area”.

Whatever the outcome, according to well-placed sources, the cordon around the villages in Shopian district, was in tune with the decision taken in New Delhi, where Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh reviewed the situation in three meetings in the first week of May. New Delhi is “concerned” about the security situation, and is said to have given the “go ahead” for a cleansing operation to establish the “lost writ of the state”. The fear, however, is that this might result in heavy civilian casualties as well.

Shopian is the first place where the “experiment” has been done, and the exercise will continue in the days to come. There was resistance in a few villages, but Deputy Inspector General of Police S.P. Pani told this writer that they “got cooperation from some villages as well”. According to him, militancy is not the challenge, but a breakdown of law and order, in which people get involved and put up resistance, makes their job difficult. “We want to avoid casualties and obviously that slows down our progress,” he said.

Pani believes that the situation in south Kashmir has been blown out of proportion. “We have 88 local militants active in the area. It is not difficult to deal with them,” but the problem was that “they are more connected with the people, thus attracting crowds to defend them”, he said. “That, however, is a temporary phase and we will overcome that,” he added.

The confidence of the officers that they can regain control of south Kashmir may have taken a knock when the Election Commission cancelled the byelection to the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat (covering entire south Kashmir). It was scheduled to be held three days after the byelection to the Srinagar seat on April 9, but when eight people were killed in violence on election day, the PDP candidate and Mehbooba Mufti’s brother Tassaduq Mufti sought postponement of the Anantnag byelection. The Election Commission postponed it to May 25, but when things did not improve, it put off the election indefinitely.

Many analysts saw this as unprecedented because even at the peak of militancy the Central government managed to hold elections. They saw the cancellation as surrender to the stone throwers and other protesters and a response to the increasing people’s resistance to the electoral process, which witnessed a 65 per cent turnout in 2014. This was like a windfall for the separatists as their call for a boycott of elections in the past had been all but ignored by the people. But the 7 per cent turnout in the Srinagar byelection and the violence on that day seemed to suggest that it was an expression of the people’s disaffection with the state and also their disconnect with politicians.

The rise of militancy in south Kashmir, which had been declared a “militancy free” zone in 2008, coincided with Burhan Wani’s appearance on the stage during the past few years. His killing in July 2016 sparked unprecedented unrest in Kashmir that cemented the people’s bond with secessionism that had seemingly taken a back seat. Though 2008 (the “Amarnath agitation” following the controversy over transfer of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board) and 2010 (killings by the Army sparked protests) witnessed a strong anti-India outpouring in Kashmir, drawing clear lines between Srinagar and New Delhi, 2016 took it to a new level. The security forces’ attempts to quell the protests resulted in the killing of nearly 100 people, and the use of pellet guns led to injuries to thousands, with scores of them blinded.

Growing anger

On the face of it, not much change could be seen in New Delhi’s attitude. The result was that the recruitment of local boys into militancy continued and the anger against the state only increased with the use of brutal force by the security forces, apparently with the sanction of the political leaderships in New Delhi and Srinagar. This only led to increasing support for the militants to the extent that people resisted anti-militancy operations and cornered the Army, the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the police by staging protests and throwing stones at them. A glaring example of the people’s contempt for the state was an incident in the last week of March in the Chadoora area of central Kashmir’s Budgam district. A militant got trapped and the civilian population rushed to save him, and in the confrontation with the security forces three young civilians died.

The incident cast a shadow over the April 9 byelection to the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency, which covers the districts of Srinagar, Budgam and Ganderbal, leading to violence that claimed eight lives and dented the electoral process. Those dealing with the situation in south Kashmir attribute the cancellation of the Anantnag byelection to the “mishandling” in Budgam. “We were not doing bad and we could have held elections, but the killings in Budgam set the tone for the rest,” said an official. Informed sources said it was administrative failure that led to the fiasco. Even as late as April 8 evening, the security forces had not been deployed for election duty. Normally the forces are deployed two days before polling day.

A complete failure of the police leadership is said to have contributed much to the situation slipping out of hand. “When you post even station house officers on the recommendations of politicians and relatives of top political functionaries, this has to be the result,” said a top official who believes that “money is playing a role in transfers and postings”. Recent incidents of looting of banks and snatching of rifles from the police have added to the “lawlessness” and emboldened those who want the trouble to continue.

The police easily giving up their weapons to militants has happened after a long time. The State police took a long time to respond, possibly out of fear, to the armed rebellion that broke out in late 1989. Ultimately, it took on the militancy and virtually wiped it out. A similar situation has emerged, though not on a large scale. Looting of banks, killing of policemen and guards and snatching of rifles from policemen on guard duty have hit the morale of the police force. What added to the force’s disappointment was the national media’s outrage over the killing of an Army man and a Border Security Force (BSF) jawan on the border by Pakistani forces, while ignoring the killing of five policemen.

Student protests

More than the militancy, it is the resistance of the people that seems to be the bigger challenge, as Pani pointed out. The political context of the problem is in full play and has been embedded strongly in the people’s anger. The involvement of almost every section of society, the latest example of this being the widespread protests by colleges and secondary school students, against the state is attributed to the increasing atrocities against the people.

It all started with the arrival of an Army major in the Government Degree College, Pulwama, on April 15. He had gone there with a proposal of holding a painting competition. He was travelling in a Casspir vehicle, which is known for the impact it has made in conflict areas. (The Casspir is a mine-resistant, ambush protected four-wheel drive vehicle used to transport troops, and it offers the crew protection from small-arms fire.) That irritated the students, who pelted it with stones. An hour-long shelling by the police on the college premises, which left scores injured, made the situation worse.

This was enough to fuel anger across the Valley, with students coming out of their colleges and schools in large numbers. Even girls staged protests and for the first time were seen throwing stones at the police. Images of a girl student hitting a police vehicle with one hand while carrying a football in the other went viral on social media. Colleges and higher secondary schools were closed for 10 days and in many areas they were shut intermittently to prevent protests, which have become a routine now in educational institutions. The Kashmir University Students Union initially called for protests but later asked students to return to classrooms. The police claimed that in some institutions a militant organisation was sustaining the protests through its “strong” network. But on the face of it, the rage seems spontaneous, and considering the way in which boys and girls have linked it with the political conflict, the coming days may not see any let up.

Kashmir’s violent politics has had major contributions from strong student movements. In the early 1960s, Al Fatah, an armed group of mainly students, challenged the Indian state. The Young Man’s League, too, followed the same path. Though both fizzled out against the might of the state, organisations such as the Islami jamiat-e-Talaba, the student wing of the Jamat-e-Islami, provided an ideological framework for the resistance movement. Those who raised the first banner of revolt under the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) in 1988 by embracing the gun as a means to get “independence from India” were mostly members of the Islamic Students League, which was responsible for opposing two international cricket matches played between India and Australia and India and the West Indies in the mid 1980s.

As of now, there seems to be no organised structure in the youths’ protests in Kashmir, but which way these young, impressionable minds, infused with hatred towards the Centre, may turn is anybody’s guess. Youths constitute more than 65 per cent of Kashmir’s population, and form a segment on which the political conflict has made a deep impact. With the Joint Hurriyat Conference, led by the trio of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik, finding it difficult to take control, there is no real leadership to take charge of the anarchic situation that is unfolding rapidly.

“Which way are our youths going?” asked a teacher at Kashmir University. “It is a dangerous trend and we need to see who is responsible for this,” the teacher added.

The violence and its impact on the minds of youths over the last two decades have contributed to a belief that there is no scope to change anything. This belief has played an important role in their thinking that they cannot be agents of change in society. A study on Kashmiri youth by Oxfam in 2003 claimed that 90.38 per cent of the respondents were angry and the families of 63.44 per cent of the respondents were affected directly by the violence.

“Students demonstrated grave impacts of the violence, which were portrayed in their painting, writing and conversation,” the study revealed. “The only collective activity possible in Kashmir is participation in weddings or attending parties at mosques.”

Similarly, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres), in a study, found a huge toll on the mental well-being of communities. It revealed that the suicide rate had increased by 400 per cent owing to the violence and “58.69 per cent of the youth had experienced traumatic events, most commonly gunfire and explosions”. While the influence of religion has increased significantly in the past 20 years, it has nevertheless failed to change the liberal outlook of society. A 2010 study by the Sociology Department of Kashmir University showed that 72 per cent of the respondents in the age group of 15-18 believed in religious tolerance and coexistence of religions.

A feeling of living under siege in their own homeland, coupled with economic deprivation and denial of participation in democratic processes, has led to dejection. This has ultimately forced these youth to get together to take on the police and other security forces on a large scale. Just one incident of fake encounter in the remote Machil area in 2010, in which the Army killed three youths, allegedly to get rewards and promotions, triggered a long cycle of violent unrest in the Valley, which finally ended with the killing of 120 civilians. Thirty-four of these mostly young men were between 11 and 20 years of age, and 44 were between 21 and 30. A smaller number, 16, were above 31 years of age and three were between five and 10 years of age. The highest number, 39, was of students and the rest were skilled/unskilled labourers and businessmen.

In 2008 and 2009, too, the youth had participated actively in the protests in the Amarnath land row and alleged rape and murder of two women in Shopian, widely believed to have been done by the state forces. However, an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation gave a clean chit to the forces and maintained that the women had died of drowning. The participation of youths in these protests has been described by many as Kashmir’s transition from violence to non-violence against the backdrop of an armed rebellion of 20 years.

A study conducted by the New Delhi-based Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation (CDR) against the backdrop of the 2010 agitation makes the interesting observation that most of the youths had no political affiliation. “An interesting observation is the response of the victims’ families to the question on political affiliations. When families were asked if they, or those who were killed, professed any political affiliations, an overwhelming 78 per cent cited a complete lack of political affiliation. There have been a number of claims of who led and how the protests were sponsored or channelled, but insofar as the victims of the protests are concerned, neither they nor their families claim to belong to any one political faction” (CDR, Kashmir Unrest, 2010).

What is turning out to be an alarming reality is that the youth do not listen to their parents even. And the social sanctity attached to anything one does against the state is making it more difficult for even the elders who would like to counsel them against taking this path. “Whosover pelts the police with stones is seen as a warrior and those who get killed in the retaliatory action are martyrs. So the social sanction to any such action makes it amply clear how the situation has unfolded,” said a senior teacher in a college that was at the centre of protests recently. The political context is providing legitimacy to any such action.

On banning social media

In the absence of political engagement, the State government found that blocking social media was a means to counter protest. But it is turning out to be counterproductive. Under a government order, 22 social media sites were banned in April. However, people, though a small number, shifted to proxy servers to get connected. According to a top police official, Pakistan was fuelling protests by using social media sites, especially when there was an encounter. “We identified as many 320 WhatsApp groups and more than 30,000 Facebook accounts/pages that originated in Pakistan,” he said. Whenever there was an encounter, they circulated emotional messages in these groups, especially in women’s voices, pleading for rescuing militants. “And this would work,” he said.

People swarm encounter sites and demand that the bodies of the militants be handed over to them. In the border district of Kupwara, thousands of people put up a stiff resistance during an encounter between the Army and a fidayeen group that had launched an attack and killed three soldiers in the last week of April. The people demanded the bodies of the slain militants who were Pakistanis. One civilian was killed when the Army opened fire to disperse them. When elections were held on April 9, the authorities banned the Internet, still eight people were killed in the violence that erupted that day.

Whatever is happening in Kashmir is not a law and order problem. It is the result of continuous denial by New Delhi on the political front and refusal of political engagement. The Agenda of Alliance (AoA) signed by the PDP and the Bharatiya Janata Party is committed to political engagement with forces such as the Hurriyat and even Pakistan, but the Central government has said that for that to happen the situation should return to normal. This approach strengthened the separatist tendencies and discredited the mainstream political parties in the State, particularly the PDP.

Mehbooba Mufti, who once had a soft corner for the separatists, pleaded with the Centre to reach out to Kashmir, but to no avail. The perception that New Delhi will continue to follow the iron-hand method in Kashmir, using the Army and paramilitary forces to regain control, without showing any concern for the people, is getting stronger, but the human cost of that approach will be difficult to estimate.

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