Cover Story

Wrath of Kashmir

Print edition : August 19, 2016

Burhan Wani's funeral procession in Tral, 38 km south of Srinagar, on July 9. Photo: AP

A protest march in Srinagar on July 28. Curfew was lifted in most parts of the Valley, but shops and businesses remained shut in response to a strike call. Photo: Mukhtar Khan/AP

Kashmiri women shout pro-independence slogans as they march towards the office of the United Nations Military Observer Group in Srinagar on July 29. The police fired tear gas and used wooden batons to disperse the protesters. Photo: Mukhtar Khan/AP

The anger in the streets of Kashmir is not about economic stagnation or unemployment; it is about the people’s aspiration to live a life of dignity. It is high time New Delhi woke up to the reality.

The current phase of unrest in Kashmir, which began on July 8 with the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, is a replay of what happened in 2008 and 2010. At the time of writing this report, 55 people have lost their lives and 5,000 injured, which makes the number of casualties the highest in comparison with any phase of unrest since 1989. According to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, 2,228 State police personnel, 1,100 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel and 2,259 civilians were injured in 16 days of turmoil. Pellet guns, apparently used to minimise losses, have proved more dangerous than other ways of dispersing crowds. Kashmir is seething with anger and sees this new phase of “struggle” as a “do or die” situation”. Cries for “azaadi” from India are louder than they were before.

Anger against the media

South Kashmir has remained the scene of bloody battles fought between people (wielding mostly stones) and the police/paramilitary forces (armed with guns and shells). The rest of the Valley is no different, though the human losses have been minimal there. Visit any village in the southern districts of Anantnag, Pulwama, Kulgam and Shopian and you will be confronted by a hostile village boy. The first salvo is that “you media people are be-imaan” (dishonest)”. “You don’t tell the truth—how the Indian forces are butchering us, how Kashmiris are fighting for azaadi,” shouted a young man, Idrees Ahmad, in Litter, Pulwama. Litter is among the many villages that saw intense protests, including an attack on a Special Operations Group (SOG) camp of the Jammu and Kashmir Police. The protests were so fiery that even policemen who were considered “motivated” and “well trained” in counter-insurgency had to desert the camps in Litter, Lassipora and Rahmo; these were subsequently razed to the ground by mobs. When a bulldozer was brought in to bring down the camp in Rahmo, the protesters stopped it: they wanted to dismantle it brick by brick with their own hands.

There was the same kind of anger in Hassanpora in Bijbehara. When this writer stopped there, a few youngsters came running. “Are you from the police?” was their question. Even the answer that we were from the media agitated them. The assurance that we were “local media” just about ensured that we were not heckled or abused. The government’s banning of newspapers in Kashmir for five days and treating them as a “threat to peace” did not redeem them in the eyes of the local population. Local people still see them as part of the larger media (read national media) that give a bad name to their “movement for azaadi”.

The police have said that three police stations and two police posts were burnt by mobs and that 50 government buildings were damaged. But they do not talk about the SOG camps. At some places, relatives of police personnel were forced to tender public apologies in mosques for the “atrocities committed by their kin while discharging their duty”.

Travelling to south Kashmir is in itself quite challenging. The roads are deserted, with brickbats, stones and shattered glass strewn everywhere. With the shops shut and the traffic off the roads, most of the places look like ghost towns; but in some areas groups of young men are engaged in pitched battles with the police. They have erected barricades and are in control of the situation. Wherever you make a stop, you are confronted by angry young boys who ask you questions about your credentials and let you proceed if they are satisfied. But there is no guarantee that you will be let off at the next stop. The police and CRPF personnel may also quiz you at some stops.

A completely alienated generation

The protests this time are different. Even the mention of an influential separatist leader is enough to irritate the angry young people. Mudasir Ahmad, a young graduate in Pulwama, said: “What leaders? We have been ditched by everyone. That is why we do not believe them.” Pulwama, Anantnag and Kulgam have been the worst affected districts. In Anantnag alone, 18 boys were killed in police firing. The region is considered to be a People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) stronghold, but now the mere mention of the PDP can provoke angry and violent reactions. Only a fortnight ago Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti won the byelection from the Anantnag Assembly segment with a significant margin, double that of her father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, in the December 2014 election. Yet, that win seems to be a thing of the past now. Today, the PDP is seen as an “enemy” that is part of the “killing machine”.

Ghulam Rasool, a government teacher in Pulwama, said: “The PDP was our hope as they talked about honour and dignity, but look, they are delivering body bags of young men.” He added: “I challenge Mehbooba Mufti to come to this place now, in this situation.”

Why did South Kashmir erupt, that too after the killing of a militant commander? After all, Kashmiris had willingly embraced the transition from violence to non-violence to pave way for a political resolution to the Kashmir issue. Is it really Pakistan that is sponsoring this level of public unrest? It is not hard to find answers to these critical questions when you travel extensively in the affected areas, which look like battlefields. It becomes very clear that the present generation, born after 1990, is in complete disconnect with India. They see the Indian state only through the barrel of the gun, and many of them say “we have been deceived and cheated” with promises time and again.

An average Kashmiri is very hard to tackle in a political discussion. He starts right from 1586, saying “we lost sovereignty way back in 1586 when Akbar arrested the last independent ruler Yousuf Shah Chak”, and then continues with a long list of invasions. The young people who are now challenging the police and the paramilitary are more daring than the youngsters who chose to pick up guns in the 1990s.

‘Bullets can’t stop us’

“We have the capacity to make them surrender,” said a 20-year-old boy, Atif Ahmed, in Rahmo, pointing towards a deserted and damaged SOG camp. “Can they come back? No, over our dead bodies.” His eyes filled up with anger as he said: “Do you think we are making sacrifices just for fun? No, it is for azadi, and India will have to respond to this. No Omar, no Mehbooba, no Azad can stop us by firing bullets on us, write this if you have the courage.” His friend Muneer added: “We are not anti-India, but we hate India for not listening to us and killing us.”

This is the refrain from all other parts of Kashmir where the government forces are struggling to restore peace. This time, the Army was not much in the picture, except in Qazigund where three people, including a woman, were killed when Army personnel were allegedly attacked by a mob. The police and the CRPF admit that they face a different situation this time. “ Yeh mushkil ladai hai; Yeh hamarey nahin hain” (It is a difficult battle; these people are not our people), a CRPF head constable told this writer in Pulwama. He was referring to the hostile crowds that he and his colleagues face, while their officers ask them to observe restraint. Policemen on duty have in the last fortnight talked about the vulnerabilities that the political set-up has imposed on them. The mob attacks on police installations and government buildings are telltale signs of a new, rather violent Kashmir. The staff of the Jammu and Kashmir Police are part of the society in Kashmir, and their connection with the people has taken a beating. A police officer, while asserting that policemen were “not demoralised”, was worried about how police stations/camps had been targeted by mobs.

The anger in the streets of Kashmir is redefining the political turmoil in which the State has been caught since 1990. At that time, the face-off started with hundreds of Kashmiri youngsters joining the militant movement. Many of them crossed over to the Pakistani side of Kashmir, were supplied with arms and ammunition, and then came back to face the security forces. The mass uprising in early 1990 saw hundreds of thousands of people on the streets calling for an end to “Indian occupation”.

The mid-1990s witnessed a decline in violence, and fewer Kashmiris participated in the armed struggle. Elections were held, successive governments came to power, and for a long time an atmosphere of normalcy prevailed. However, today’s Kashmir has a new generation seeking recourse to violence. Haroon Rashid, a young boy in Pulwama, said: “We do not have guns, that is the only problem… We do not want jobs. We are affluent. We want a life with dignity and honour, and that can come only after azadi.” His friends, who had surrounded us as he was talking, applauded loudly. The participation of boys as young as 15, or even 10, in the protests belies the commonly parroted narrative outside Kashmir that it is all a problem of unemployment.

Most of the injured protesters occupying the long rows of beds at Srinagar’s Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital are educated and employed. One of them, Firdous, responded to my question with: “My only objective is to get back on my legs and fight them [the security forces] back, perhaps with a gun, if I get one.” About the shoot-out at Bijbehara in which he was injured, he said: “We were peaceful, but they fired at us.” That same day, Aamir Nazir Latoo, a postgraduate student of Delhi University, was fatally injured in firing by the security forces. One of his relatives said: “He was even beaten in the hospital by the police after he got injured.”

The PDP has a strong base in south Kashmir, where the Anantnag parliamentary seat is vacant following Mehbooba Mufti’s recent election to the State Assembly. A parliamentary byelection is, therefore, due. Political pundits feel that even after so much turmoil, the PDP may win the seat. Even if it does so, however, the political reality on the ground will not change. The anger on the streets is over the Union government’s continued refusal to recognise Kashmir as a political problem that needs a political solution.

PDP-BJP alliance

The PDP’s alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made things worse. Police officers confirm that many of the boys who joined militant organisations in the past one year had worked as PDP sympathisers in the 2014 elections. “By allying with the BJP, they stabbed us in the back,” said Mohammad Maqbool, a PDP worker in Pulwama. “We did not vote for them to bring the BJP here but for keeping them away.” He added that it was difficult for him to be seen as a PDP man in the area.

Certain moves by the Union government deepened the anger against the alliance and led to greater insecurities among Kashmiris. The plans for setting up Sainik Colonies, separate townships for Kashmiri Pandits, and a new industrial policy for the State reinforced the feeling that “India is working on a plan to change our demography”. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti could not effectively counter the perception.

The historian Chitralekha Zutshi wrote in “In general, religion seems to have displaced politics in public discourse in Kashmir. This trend, of course, has to be placed in larger regional and global contexts. The domestic ascension of the BJP to power at the Centre, followed by its coalition with the PDP in the State, has made most Kashmiris exceedingly nervous. The BJP’s tacit and sometimes overt approval of anti-Muslim violence in India, its threats to rescind Article 370, and its moves to resettle Kashmiri Pandits in the State, have led to growing fears of demographic change amongst Kashmiri Muslims.”

The PDP’s youth wing president, Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra, however, does not think that the alliance is solely responsible for the present unrest. “People had a lot of expectations from the PDP on the political front, but that did not happen,” he said. He added that Afzal Guru’s hanging in 2013 generated a “sense of defeat” among the people in Kashmir, a feeling that all doors were shut on reconciliation and dialogue. “You need to understand that Kashmir is essentially a political problem,” he said.

Unemployment is not the most important issue in today’s Kashmir, where the death of a militant commander has sparked widespread protests. The outrage at Burhan Wani’s killing was reflected in the string of attacks on police and security installations. It was reflected, too, in the July 14 attack on an orchard set up by a United States-returned professional, Khurram Shafi Mir, at Bamdoora in Kokernag. The orchard had generated jobs for the local population. But local people recall that it was inaugurated by former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and was visited by many Ministers. Also, Bamdoora is the place where Burhan was killed. A huge crowd vented its anger by uprooting apple saplings in the orchard, setting two huts on fire and damaging machinery. Mir told Rising Kashmir that those who attacked his orchard did not give any apparent reason: “They [the mob] were around 4,000. They were taking the names of Mufti Sayeed, Mehbooba Mufti, Haseeb Darbu [State Finance Minister] and Nayeem Akhtar [State Education Minister]. They were associating the orchard with the government.”

Setback to the economy

Burhan’s killing and the prolonged protests that followed were a huge setback to tourism and other economic activities. Schools are now closed for a month, and businesses have come to a halt. It seems like a repeat of what happened in 2010. But this time it may take far longer for the dust to settle because there is no clear leadership guiding the agitation, notwithstanding the fact that Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Mohammad Yasin Malik have come on a joint platform to “regulate” the agitation by issuing protest calendars. All the separatist leaders are either arrested or under house arrest. But will they be in a position to break the impasse in the absence of any moves by the Union government to work out a political resolution? Rajnath Singh did visit Srinagar on July 23, but he did nothing to move towards a political solution. Indeed, he seemed to be struggling even to express regret over the deaths. His rhetoric was centred around security concerns and quite obviously did not venture beyond bureaucratic advice. He showed no realisation that the ground situation had slipped out of control and could not be dealt with by force.

A senior police officer in Srinagar, who wished not to be named, said things were not as simple as they appeared. “Kashmiris have had political discontent for a long time, but Pakistan has been increasingly fiddling with it. This unrest had to come. There is a pattern, and Pakistanis have been working with separatists [through the Pakistan High Commission] for many months to start this,” he said. “Burhan was a trigger to do this. They tried Sainik Colonies, Pandit Colonies and Handwara [firing on protesters by security forces earlier in the year], but did not succeed.” He added that Hurriyat activists were actively co-ordinating the current protests.

Even if Pakistan is playing a crucial role in the protests, however, the ground realities have gone beyond what can be achieved through manipulation. Political radicalisation, not necessarily on the basis of religion, has reached a stage where using force may not be the best way of dealing with it.

The current phase of unrest, as stated by former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah (see interview, page 21), is not about a specific demand, unlike in 2008 or 2010. The unrest this time presses for a final resolution, and there are well-grounded fears that it may lead to a long spell of agitation and leave Kashmir economically crippled.

Omar Abdullah is right to the extent that the people taking to the streets are not asking for anything material. But the point is that even the 2008 and 2010 agitations were grounded in popular dissatisfaction centred around the larger political conflict. The current agitation is in some measure a result of the government’s failure to adequately address the concerns of the 2010 agitation. The then United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre appointed the Jammu & Kashmir Interlocutors Group in October 2010. The Group submitted its report in 2011, and it was made public in 2012. It contained proposals to review all Central laws extended to Jammu and Kashmir since 1952; the substitution of the word “Temporary” with “Special” in Article 370; and the release from custody of all protesters against whom there were no serious charges. Yet, the same old policies were followed. This only added to the long list of “betrayals” that Kashmiris hold against the government at the Centre. The reason that Kashmir is on the boil again and again is that in political terms people do not want to live with a sense of defeat.

If today people in Kashmir are not ready to listen even to their “own leaders”, whether mainstream or separatist, it has much to do with the Union government’s continuous insistence that Kashmir is a law-and-order problem created by Pakistan rather than a political one. If Pakistan is able to mobilise two hundred thousand people for the funeral procession of a slain militant leader and get Kashmiris out in the streets to engage in a prolonged battle with the Indian state, then that merits serious attention from New Delhi on its own standing in Kashmir.

Shujaat Bukhari is a senior journalist based in Srinagar.

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