Jammu and Kashmir

Kashmir: Insurgency in the air

Print edition : October 25, 2019

Kashmiri protesters shouting anti-India slogans during a protest in Srinagar on September 26. Photo: TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

Protesters carry an injured youth during clashes with security forces on the outskirts of Srinagar on August 30. Photo: AFP

At a protest in Srinagar on August 23. Photo: TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

Not a soul could be spotted at the fruit mandi in Pulwama on October 2, revealing the complete suspension of economic activity in the Valley. Photo: ANANDO BHAKTO

Iqbal market in Sopore wears a deserted look on September 30 as the civil curfew continues unabated. Photo: ANANDO BHAKTO

A telephone booth that has been set up in Srinagar by the CRPF remains locked. Photo: ANANDO BHAKTO

IN an apple orchard at Tarakpora in Bandipora. The harvest is rotting in most orchards. Photo: ANANDO BHAKTO

If the Centre expected an immediate and emotional outburst after the August 5 move, it did not come, but the simmering resentment in Kashmir points to the possibility of a more ominous outcome.

Kashmir is drifting towards a broad insurrection, and the early signs of it are impossible to miss when one whirls around the locked-down Valley. Be it the twenty-something boys loitering away the afternoon in quiet orchards, each with a dreadful tale of ransack by the military, or older men who assemble outside closed shops and kiosks in small groups to keep a watch over prowling snipers, the combative rhetoric against New Delhi gives a sense of the rage that was ignited by the August 5 decision of the Union government to end Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status. “We’ll not give up” is the common refrain.

A general discussion with a cross section of people in Srinagar, Bandipora, Sopore, Pulwama and Shopian revealed that they had dim hopes of political inclusion or finding a political means of securing their rights under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre. They emphasised that the temporary withholding of street protests should not be falsely seen as a sign of people’s weariness. “It’s going to be more calibrated,” someone at the Iqbal Market in Sopore pointed out.

A senior scribe in Srinagar, who has covered the Kashmir insurgency since 1990, feared the approaching winter could be “the hottest in decades”. “Imran Khan’s all-out offensive over Kashmir and his decision to suspend communication channels with India give us a hint of how things would unfold,” he said. “Pakistan’s assets here have not ended,” he added, and left the sentence hanging, implying that the neighbouring country was likely to activate its sleeper cells to step up arms supply and infiltrate insurgents into Kashmir in the coming months. Reports suggest that the exercise is under way. On September 12 and 13, a video showed the Indian forces launching a grenade attack to foil infiltration bid by Pakistan’s border action teams. Media reports say Pakistan has mobilised infiltrators along the Line of Control (LoC) near the Uri, Keran, Poonch and Naushera sectors.

According to the scribe quoted above, the government hurt its own interest in the Valley by incarcerating pro-resistance leaders. He made the apt point that a leaderless struggle could be more intense and sanguinary. “Imagine what would happen if the Hurriyat were to lead from the front. They would issue protest calendars; the shutdown would be in phases and with the passage of time diffuse, as we had seen in the past.”

Soon after the Pulwama terror strike on February 14, former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah stressed the importance of reaching out to protesters in staving off a larger uprising. In an exclusive interview with this reporter, he said: “As painful as it may be for some people to read, it is important to understand that protests that deliver no face-savers for the protesters or don’t seem to deliver anything give rise to a deep-seated resentment. In 2008, there were two distinct agitations. There was the Amarnath land row; an agitation built up in the Valley. The allotment of land was cancelled, and the agitation died down. But as a result of that agitation, an economic blockade of Kashmir took place. You had a ‘Muzaffarabad chalo’ call; people died in that, and the agitation spiralled out of control. But the agitation really ended when the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road was thrown open for trade. People who agitated felt that there was something that that agitation had achieved. In 2009, the agitation was about the allegation of rape and murder in Shopian. A CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] probe found the truth to be otherwise, and the agitation petered out. In 2010, the agitation to a large extent eased off with the announcement of the interlocutors and the acceptance of a political dialogue. Contrast this with 2016; when the agitation ended, you had basically tired people out but nothing emerged out of it.”

The government is repeating the same mistake by denying people avenues for a democratic expression of dissent. It has only a glimmer of recognition that 2019 is not 2016, when the protests erupted as an emotive outburst over the killing of a militant commander, 21-year-old Burhan Wani, who represented the new-age militancy. This time it is a more encompassing, non-negotiable “fight for survival”, as everyone in the Valley is quick to point out, explicitly or in veiled references.

Officials in the State’s security apparatus admit in off-the-record conversations that the Central government had not factored in the possibility that people could be calculative. One of them described what the government has expected: “An immediate civilian outburst, followed by high-handed repression for a month and the eventual surrender by protesters in the wake of mounting casualties….” The simmering rage on the ground, manifest in voluntary cessation of movement and action on Kashmir’s streets, points to a profound error of judgment. Frontline underlined in an earlier story that the government did not have much in its toolbox (“The storm beneath the calm”, September 27, 2019): “As the Valley drifts towards a frustrating uncertainty, leaders from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party continue to mouth the rhetoric of majoritarian politics without offering an insight into how they plan to address the prevailing uncertainty. A discussion with people closely associated with Governor [Satya Pal] Malik’s regime revealed that they have similar perceptions about the developing political situation and are examining some key questions in strictly private gatherings: Did the government think beyond the first step when it abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution?”

A bureaucrat who spoke to this reporter noted that it would not be easy to tire people out. Deep inside Shopian, a mob at Pinjura village illustrated his point. “There’s a cordon every second day,” rued a 25-year-old who had been left partially blinded by a pellet injury earlier this year. “We can’t sleep in the night; the noise of Army men barging into our house haunts us after dark.” In a minute’s time, boys strolling around in the vicinity began to gather and the conversation flared up. “We fear for our women’s dignity; they have mostly stayed indoors since the clampdown began. It’s not safe here,” a youth said irritably, pointing to the nearby Choudhary Gund Camp.

The chorus grew. “[Prime Minister Narendra] 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,” said one of the boys. As an agitated recounting of Army excesses began, someone mentioned 15-year-old Yawar Ahmad Bhat of Chandgam village in neighbouring Pulwama. Yawar committed suicide on September 19 after being allegedly detained by the Army and tortured. The boys felt strongly that he should have “become a mujahideen rather than taking the extreme step”. “Why kill oneself? Why not wage war with the oppressor?” said one of them.

The Army, meanwhile, has categorically rejected cases of torture reported in the press.

Yet, people across Shopian, Pulwama, Sopore and Bandipora allege that midnight torching of houses and illegal detention of minors are a constant and persistent feature of post-Burhan Wani Kashmir, and in the past two months the arbitrariness has increased manifold. In Kach Dorah village in Shopian, for example, at least seven minors were picked up illegally on September 18, local residents said. After a transport vehicle bearing a Haryana number plate was set ablaze that day, the Army cordoned off the area at 8:30 p.m. A local medico said the terror of that night was still fresh in his mind: “I along with my two minor sons was asked to assemble outside while my wife waited in the house. A security man said the SSP [Senior Superintendent of Police] was calling me to interrogate. I met the SSP, who was with his convoy at some distance, and explained to him that we had no complicity in what had happened. He seemed to understand. When I returned, I was horrified to learn that my elder son had been taken away. He was kept in detention for the next three days.” Eyewitnesses said the joint team of the Army, the Special Operations Group (SOG) and the Jammu and Kashmir Police was domineering. “They threatened to kill us, abused us, broke the window panes,” a woman complained.

An elderly man at Pinjura said the Army recently destroyed scores of boxes of apples just before a trader was set to cart them off. Several boys who live around the Haal, Choudhary Gund and Pahnoo Army camps alleged they were frequently summoned for interrogation. “They do this on purpose. They want to generate a fear psychosis. They believe fear will stave off a rebellion,” said a teenager in Shopian. “Such coercion will breed more rebels than it will contain.”

Political observers also feel that the basic deficiency of the government’s Kashmir policy was its reliance on the use of brute force to exterminate insurgency without any corresponding effort to politically engage the stakeholders.

Complaints of state repression are also percolating out of Srinagar’s power corridors. From what was a strictly off-the-record conversation, Frontline learnt that the role of administrators from the State had been reduced to “task performing with complete acquiescence”. A senior police officer currently posted in a south Kashmir district said: “There’s no scope for debate or disagreement during meetings held at the Raj Bhavan. Whatever decision is taken, one implements it. If one doesn’t, one could be parcelled off to Tihar [jail] without any consideration of one’s rank or seniority.”

Alienation is at an all-time high in the Kashmir Valley, perhaps to “a point of no return” as people everywhere grumble. This is essentially triggered by a realisation that a reconciliatory approach does not fit in the narrative of the BJP, which is marked by politicisation of national security issues and an emphasis on placing the social and political hegemony of Hindus at top. Some of the recent statements of BJP Ministers, particularly those made in the run-up to the much hyped Modi-Imran Khan duel at the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, bring out the Centre’s reluctance to accord importance to dialogue or offer any fig leaf to the people of Kashmir. “Those who indulge in terrorism and those who sponsor terror activities will be dealt with seriously by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah,” said Amit Shah on September 25. The same day Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar brushed off suggestions of bilateral talks with Pakistan, decrying the neighbouring country as “Terroristan”. Home Minister Rajnath Singh had previously said that talks, henceforth, would be only over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Their rhetoric augments Kashmiris’ belief that a political solution is next to impossible to achieve. “Everyone knows what we want,” said one man in Bandipora main town. Another said: “Modi has asked people to embrace Kashmiris. Is this how you show love and acceptance? By this broad-daylight robbery of one’s constitutional guarantees?” At Tarakpora, an orchard owner who hails from Patushay village described the BJP’s strategy as “finish and rule”. “If Farooq saab [National Conference president Farooq Abdullah] can be charged under the Public Safety Act, what is our position in the Indian Union?” he asked. He regretted that he used to identify himself as a “proud Indian”.

At a chemist’s shop in Sopore, local people claimed that militant recruitment was brisk. All seemed to believe that militancy was set to enter its most fraught phase. “It will be much bigger,” a middle-aged man said. “Bigger than what we saw in 1990.” The sentiment was echoed elsewhere. A transporter at a village in Shopian said he had kept his shop shut since August 5 and did not care about the colossal losses. “Normally in August-September, which is the harvest season, my trucks would have made 600 rounds. It’s a loss of Rs.6 to 8 lakh. But resistance is paramount.”

An assessment of the security grid in Kashmir presents a grim picture. A middle-rung officer associated with the Counter-Intelligence Kashmir (CIK) said Pulwama-like lone wolf attacks on security establishments and other destinations were feared. The Jammu and Kashmir Police personnel fear they could be the easy targets for reprisal. “We don’t have adequate security cover... We’re seen as collaborators who have compromised the Kashmir cause, and that adds to our vulnerability. We’re trying to change the way people look at us. We’re mingling more,” said a police officer.

Over a hundred people interviewed in north and south Kashmir said there was a jubilant reception of Imran Khan’s address to the General Assembly. Downtown Srinagar was no different. The Pakistani Premier accused India of “forcing people into radicalisation”. “This is one of the most critical times. There will be a reaction to this and Pakistan will be blamed. Two nuclear countries will come face to face... if a conventional war starts between the two countries, supposing a country seven times smaller is faced with a choice to surrender or fight to the end. When a nuclear country fights till the end it has consequences far beyond the borders,” he said.

An engineering student who lives in Batapora on Srinagar’s outskirts said that following Imran Khan’s speech, which people watched on Al Jazeera, people rushed out on the streets and there were fireworks. His elder brother explained the fervour: “He represented us; he voiced our miseries, our fear of living in the world’s densest military zone. This was huge.” The youths in the hinterland are interpreting Khan’s words as a plea for armed struggle. “That would need kurbani [sacrifice]; we’re prepared for it,” said one of the boys at Pinjura.

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