Jammu & Kashmir

Valley of fire

Print edition : August 05, 2016

The body of Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander who was killed in an encounter in the Kokarnag area of Anantnag district, at his home in Tral, south of Srinagar, on July 9. Photo: Dar Yasin/AP

Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. She is facing the toughest challenge of her political career. Photo: TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

Funeral prayers for Burhan at Shareef village in Tral. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

Burhan, the militant (right), with a comrade. Photo: PTI

Protesters clash with the police in Srinagar on July 11. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

The anger and violence in Kashmir following the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen leader Burhan Wani defines the heightened anti-India sentiment in the valley.

PEACE in the Kashmir Valley has always been deceptive. Its fragility has been the reality on the ground but no lessons have been learnt. Kashmir has been witnessing a different phase of resistance in the past eight years, which even its leaders have been unable to curb. The current trouble, which began with the killing of 21-year-old Burhan Wani, the most wanted commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, has brought to the fore a new layer of reality in the valley’s unending conflict. It is a hard and rather disturbing layer in the sense that Kashmiris now hark back to the 1990s when they eulogised the militants.

The fresh cycle of violence has left 35 dead and 1,500 people injured. The injured, who are undergoing treatment in various hospitals, may not even be able to lead normal lives any more. Scores of young boys who have been hit by pellets may lose their eyesight. The valley has been placed on extended lockdown with curfew restrictions, although people have successfully defied the curfew at many places. The anger against the state has touched a new high and Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has failed to douse the flames.

The trouble started on July 8 when a party of the Special Operations Group (SOG) of the Jammu and Kashmir Police acted on a tip-off and reached Kokernag in south Kashmir to zero in on a house where Burhan Wani was spending time with two of his associates following Eid. The information was so correct that the party faced no difficulty in identifying the house and straightaway went to challenge the trio. According to the police, there was an encounter and by evening it was clear that Burhan, who had been giving the security establishment sleepless nights, was no more. The news of Burhan’s death spread like wildfire and murmurs of protests began to be heard. In Kulgam district, it was reported that much before Burhan’s body was handed over to his family at Tral at 3 a.m. on July 9, a boy had been hit by a bullet. The simmering discontent made it clear that Kashmir was heading for bad days after a peaceful Eid celebration. The government seems to have underestimated the spark that Burhan could ignite. Intelligence and administrative “gurus” had dismissed him as another militant commander and denied the potential of the aura they had themselves built around him by categorising him as “A++” militant who carried a bounty of Rs.20 lakh on his head.

When Burhan’s body reached Tral, otherwise known as the “Tora Bora” of Kashmir militancy, a stream of mourners, especially from the southern part of the valley, began to head for the place. The authorities had started mobilising security forces to impose restrictions, but that did not deter the mourners; they braved the hostile road leading to Tral. Journalists, who were in Tral that day and who had been covering the Kashmir conflict for many years, failed to understand the new dynamics of the Kashmir conflict.

One of them said: “I have never seen people in such a frenzy. They came on bikes, tractors and load carriers, and even trudged through paddy fields as if they were going for a celebration.” The Eidgah where Burhan’s funeral was scheduled was filled to capacity, resulting in many “Nimaz-e-Jinazas” (funeral prayers). The string of funeral prayers was estimated to have been attended by nearly two lakh people. Women burst into singing, praising his “sacrifice”, and young men shouted pro-Burhan, pro-Azadi and anti-India slogans to register their renewed resistance against the Indian state. Burhan’s father, Muzaffar Wani, the principal of a local school, had been in the news for a long time, but on that day he was a “real celebrity”. Besides making frantic efforts to get a glimpse of the Hizb commander who gave a new life to Kashmir militancy, the youths were desperate to shake hands with the elder Wani. No leaders from either of the Hurriyat Conference factions were present at the funeral, as they were under house arrest. But their absence was not felt as the people set their own agenda and the youths refused to follow any leader. Hurriyat and other leaders may visit Tral or may continue with their strike calls, but a new generation that has been following the Burhan phenomenon is not looking to them for direction.

“The leaders have failed us,” said Saleah. This was evident when the most influential separatist leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, issued a press release asking the youth to maintain discipline and not damage police stations as “it gives the police an excuse to open fire on you”. He was forced to issue a clarification when he received a barrage of criticism, which stopped short of calling him a “traitor”.

The violence, which spread in south Kashmir and claimed the lives of nearly 30 people, all in the 13-35 age group, has redefined the discontent in the valley and resulted in a radical shift in the mindset of the people.

The police have been at the receiving end as mobs attacked at least 10 police stations, set on fire scores of government buildings, and pushed a policeman into a river along with his vehicle. Of the 1,500 people who suffered injuries during the violence, 200 are police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel. “We have suffered a lot. Our men have been the target of mob violence and yet we have showed restraint. Police stations were set on fire and weapons were looted,” said K. Rajendra, Director General of Police.

Burhan factor

Burhan was 15 years old when he joined the militant ranks to challenge India’s rule in Kashmir. His life story of a meritorious student turning into a militant is legend in Tral. It goes like this:

He and his elder brother Khalid were riding a motorcycle when SOG personnel beat them up without any reason. This infuriated Burhan, who was then in Class X, and provoked him into becoming a militant. Khalid was killed by the Army last year when he was returning after meeting Burhan in a nearby jungle.

Burhan’s story unfolded like a movie script. He not only changed the diction of militancy in the valley but also gave it a new colour, which is seen as “legitimate” in the sense that it is indigenous. He shunned aliases and came out in the open not only with his own name but also his true face. This was not the case in the early 1990s when armed rebellion broke out in Kashmir and thousands of Kashmiri youths picked up the gun but hid behind masks. Burhan extensively used social media to spread his messages, and this attracted young men and many became his followers. His video messages went viral, and he became the iconic figure of the new-age militancy in Kashmir. The police admit that Burhan infused a new life into the Kashmir-centric militancy by attracting local youths. In his last video message, he warned the local police of consequences if they did not desist from working against the “movement”. He also made it clear that Kashmiri Pandits were welcome but not in separate colonies. Burhan also “promised” not to attack Amarnath Yatris. The last video he posted on social media showed him playing cricket with his associates, and experts believe that this posed a challenge to the security establishment, forcing them to act swiftly. Another proposition is that the police should have caught Burhan alive as a dead Burhan is proving more dangerous. Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah fears that Burhan’s grave may inspire the youth to take his path. But it is a fact that Burhan has already become a hero, and his death has ushered in a new phase of unrest in Kashmir.

Burhan redefined militancy in Kashmir and helped change its complexion from foreign-dominated to home-grown. Officials admit that that the ratio of foreigners and local people in the militant movement used to be 80:20 a few years ago but now it is the reverse. According to official figures, the number of local people in the militant ranks has surged. While 34 local people joined the militant movement until June 30 last year, the figure for the corresponding period this year is 40. There are 100 local people in the militant ranks now, which is four times higher than what it was five years ago. This period also saw many educated youths joining the ranks. Though Burhan dropped out of school at the age of 15, he belonged to an educated middle-class family. His grandfather retired from a senior position in government, his father is the principal of a secondary school, and his mother is a postgraduate.

While civilian deaths provided the trigger for the cycles of violence in 2008 and 2010, this time people have been up in arms over the killing of a militant commander, which demonstrates a shift on the ground. This is also the first time that people have demonstrated anger against the killing of a militant commander and have died in the process.

The uprising Kashmir witnessed following the Amarnath forest land allotment row in 2008 was equated with the Arab Spring and the Intifida. The allotment of a huge chunk of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) by the then Governor S.K. Sinha gave rise to a feeling of insecurity among Kashmiris who had already been fighting a battle against political disempowerment. The row over the land allotment not only resulted in scores of deaths but deeply divided the two regions, Kashmir and Jammu, on communal lines. The record turnout in the Assembly election in December 2008 brought another layer of reality to the fore, but it did not completely remove the strong anti-India sentiment on the ground.

In 2010, the unease returned, this time triggered by the killing of three civilians in a fake Army encounter in the remote Machil area in Kupwara district. With the killing of a young student, Tufail Mattu, on June 11, 2010, Kashmir was once again in flames. The unrest, which assumed the shape of a strong anti–India movement, left 130 dead. The wounds ran deep and it took many months to restore order. But the anti-India sentiment did not die. Omar Abdullah, who was Chief Minister then, did rule the State for the next four years but he had lost real power. Again, in 2014, people turned out at the polling booths in large numbers to elect a new government. As the mandate was deeply fractured and sealed the communal divide between the two regions, a new political combine, which the late Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed described as the coming together of the “north and south poles”, emerged with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) joining hands to form the government. Kashmir had surely not voted for the BJP to come to power. But the PDP’s alliance with a party seen as anti-Muslim and anti-Kashmir further contributed to the frustration among average Kashmiris.

When the PDP-BJP alliance came to power, a sense of disenchantment had already taken deep root in Kashmiri society. The hanging of Afzal Guru, convicted for his role in the 2001 Parliament House attack, had sent a strong signal to Kashmiris that New Delhi would do anything without caring for “your emotions”. Afzal was not on the top of the death row list but was apparently chosen by the Congress to stop Narendra Modi from marching to the seat of power in Delhi. Afzal’s hanging opened up a fresh window for the Kashmiri youth to return to where they had left in the mid 1990s. Not that Kashmiri boys were not part of the militancy that flourished under the command of foreigners, but their participation in it then was low.

Coupled with the new wave of intolerance across India, Kashmiri youth started feeling more insecure and their vulnerability in the absence of employment opportunities created more space for the violent route. However, when a bunch of educated youths turned to militancy, it set a new standard in the path that Kashmiris had abandoned to pave the way for a peaceful resolution of the political impasse.

Their participation in the militancy changed its dynamic, and people started attending the funerals of “martyrs” in large numbers. They not only “legitimised” the participation of local boys in the violence but also rallied behind foreigners. When Abu Qasim, a Pakistani commander of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, was killed in early 2016, more than 30,000 people attended his funeral.

All Kashmiris may not have participated in militant activities, but the support they have shown tells a new story in Kashmir that is akin to what happened in the early 1990s when a large number of Kashmiri youths took to the gun and were sheltered in every home.

As in any conflict, there are many layers of reality in Kashmir. People seeking employment and also taking part in the elections are part of that. But the deep sense of anger against the state is the manifestation of the people’s urge to see the resolution of the Kashmir issue. From 2003 to 2008, when India and Pakistan were involved in a productive peace process and New Delhi opened channels of dialogue with Kashmiri separatists, people wholeheartedly supported the process as they believed that it was meant to find a solution. But after the 2008 Mumbai attack derailed the process, there is not only a complete absence of political engagement but also a denial: “there is no issue called Kashmir”. Instead, newly created concepts such as Sainik Colonies and separate townships for Kashmiri Pandits are thrust on the State to make the average Kashmiri more insecure about his own future in the valley.

Challenges for Mehbooba Mufti

With the seeds of alienation having taken deep root, Mehbooba Mufti is facing the toughest challenge of her political career.

Unlike Omar Abdullah, she has been “sympathetic” towards militants and their families, who have been victims of security force excesses. It is her “militant politician” image that delayed her “acceptability” in mainstream India. Her meteoric rise in politics was rendered possible by her “soft separatist” politics and identification with the victims of violence. Her father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, made a huge difference in the political spectrum of Kashmir by adopting a “healing touch” policy when he first took over as Chief Minister in 2002. It made a lot of difference on the ground with people getting relief from the tough security measures. But when he returned to power with the help of the BJP in 2015, he could not carry forward that agenda. In fact, he had also sided with the “hawkish agenda” pursued by the BJP.

Getting Kashmir back on the rails will be a tough task for Mehbooba Mufti, who won the byelection from Anantnag in June with a significant margin. If she goes by the advice of the bureaucracy and the security establishment and does not take those responsible for the current mess to task, she may lose further political ground. The coming days will redefine the role of mainstream politicians in Kashmir. Omar Abdullah or the Congress may be critical of Mehbooba Mufti as Chief Minister, but the space lost to the pro-Azadi camp or the militants will make mainstream politics as a whole irrelevant. Today, the situation is such that no “elected” representative is in a position to visit his constituency and convince the people that the unrest was not in their favour. They are confined to their fortified houses, fearful of the threat of mob attack.

The Centre is also not sending any positive signals to assuage the anger that has manifested itself in the valley. The absence of the political will to resolve the issue facing Kashmir has made a huge dent in any goodwill India may have enjoyed in the valley.

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