By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 9th Aug 16
On Tuesday, Kashmir completes a month of violent public protests that have roiled the valley since July 9, a day after the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) Police gunned down popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani. There are increasingly strident questions about why Prime Minister Narendra Modi is remaining silent, even after 60 people have been killed and 3,000 injured, 300 of them seriously, mainly in firing by security forces.
Until Wani’s killing, Kashmir was enjoying its sixth lucrative tourist season in a row, with hotels and houseboats fully occupied, taxis hard to find, and the road running along the scenic Dal Lake crowded with visitors. That idyll has now degenerated into a repeat of the nightmarish summers of 2008-2010, with mobs pelting stones and curfew confining large sections of the valley’s seven lakh people to their homes.
Indian leaders, including Home Minister Rajnath Singh, were quick to blame Pakistan for the turmoil. “There should be no glorification of terrorists as martyrs”, Rajnath thundered while visiting Islamabad on Thursday. In fact, the public uprising surprised Islamabad as much as it did New Delhi. Only after three days of rioting and the deaths of some 50 Kashmiris, did Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif grasp the opportunity that had presented itself, deploring what he termed India’s use of “excessive and unlawful force”.
Protests in Kashmir are traditionally quelled by a spell of curfew. This time, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has not succeeded in pacifying the valley thus. Large towns like Srinagar simmer resentfully, while rural South Kashmir --- especially the districts of Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam and Anantnag --- belong as much to the mobs as they do to the government. With 24 police stations having been set ablaze by protestors, the security forces, including the army, are confining themselves to heavily guarded camps. No counter-militancy operations have taken place for a month. Senior officers say this is in order to minimise the possibility of further clashes between the military and civilians.
It remains unclear why the insurgency-savvy administration was taken by surprise. In February 2013, the night before convicted terrorist, Afzal Guru, was executed in Delhi, the J&K Police locked down the valley in two hours flat, in accordance with an existing “curfew plan” that involves rounding up troublemakers to tamp down on the possibility of public protests on the streets. This time, although the administration had ample time between Wani’s death at 6.30 p.m. on Jun 8 and his burial the next afternoon --- after which rampaging mobs stormed government buildings and police stations --- the preparations turned out to be inadequate.
Kashmir’s Inspector General of Police (IG Kashmir) Javed Geelani explains that the on-going violence has been different from the violent summers of 2008, 2009 and 2010, which provide the model for the police’s contingency planning. “In those years, violence began in the towns, and remained largely urban. This time, it began in the rural areas of South Kashmir, Burhan Wani’s stronghold. The countryside is far more difficult to control. To lock down a town you just plug the main roads. Rural areas are sprawling; one cannot plug all the fields, roads, tracks and streams”, says Geelani.
The police says that militants, mostly concentrated in rural South Kashmir, have taken to instigating the crowds. Their modus operandi is to merge with the civilians, fire at the security forces to provoke a violent response, and then use the resulting deaths and injuries to inflame the situation.
“Terrorists no longer have the appetite to confront the security forces. Over a hundred have been killed in each of the last three years, and infiltration is less than that. Today there are just 147 militants left in the valley. Only the Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists, who have trained in Pakistan, know how to fight. The Kashmiris, who mostly join the Hizbul Mujahideen, have no place in the valley to train or learn to fire their weapons. With recruitment drying up, separatist leaders are choosing to instigate public violence, instead of fighting us with weapons”, says a senior army officer.
* * * *
Talking to the young Kashmiri protestors who make up the stone-pelters, there is no missing the angry defiance. Unlike the last generation of youngsters who picked up the gun, underwent training in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and were killed in large numbers (in 2001, the peak year, 2020 militants were gunned down according to official figures); this generation of Kashmiri separatists is schooled in the street protests of 2008-2010. The result is mobs of unarmed civilians, including women, who are increasingly willing to confront armed soldiers and policemen. In the recent protests, most civilian casualties, especially blinding of people, occurred while they were frontally storming police stations, when beleaguered and frightened policemen, fearful they were being overwhelmed, fired 12-guage pump-action shotguns at point blank ranges into crowds. Ironically, these guns had been inducted as “non-lethal weapons”, meant for use from distances of 40 metres or more.
Bitter anger at the civilian casualties in 2008-10 has been sharpened by a growing perception of Kashmiri victimhood. Every youngster in the valley will bring up the hanging of Afzal Guru in 2013, and the unfeeling way the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government denied his family a last meeting. Guru’s hanging is seen as a humiliating blow aimed at Kashmiris.
This narrative of mistreatment has only grown since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. Divisive controversies like the so-called love jihad, beef ban, and the lynching of a Muslim family in Dadri last year --- which might not have resonated strongly in Kashmir in earlier days --- enhanced the perception that Muslims are under siege all over India. Simultaneously, ill-considered initiatives to build “Sainik colonies” and “Pandit colonies” in Kashmir are projected as conspiracies to change the valley’s demography. The increase in Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activities in the valley compound a long-held apprehension that Christian missionaries are carrying out conversion, unchecked. Article 370, which mandates a special status for Kashmir, has come under increasing attack from Sangh ideologues. And the BJP has moved court against the unfurling of the J&K state flag along with the national flag.
Says Shuja’at Bukhari, the editor of Rising Kashmir newspaper: “A wave of intolerance across India has heightened the Kashmiri Muslim’s sense of insecurity and vulnerability. Every evening, we see jingoistic TV news anchors painting Kashmiris as terrorists. The nationalist struggle for ‘azaadi’ is now tinged with the narrative of ‘Islam-under-siege’.”
As worryingly for the administration, as for the traditional separatist leadership like the Hurriyat Conference, there is a touch of anarchy around the mobs that hurl rocks at the police everyday. The Hurriyat puts out a weekly “protest calendar”, but how the protests actually play out remains in the hands of impetuous youngsters, some just 16 years old, who are driven only by blind anger at the Indian state. When unarmed mobs were assaulting police stations just after Wani’s killing, Mehbooba Mufti turned to Hurriyat hawk, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, to quell the protests. Geelani obliged, issuing a restraint call, as he had done before Eid, when Kashmiris threatened to sacrifice cows in public places.
“When Geelani is our partner in maintaining a semblance of order, we really need to think hard about what is happening”, says a senior police officer wryly.
Compounding the public alienation in the valley is a sense of betrayal at the political alliance the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) formed with the BJP to form the government in Kashmir. While many accepted initially that this might bring Kashmir high level attention, New Delhi’s failure to launch any peace initiative created rapid disillusionment across the valley. Now Mufti’s leadership stands badly undermined by the BJP alliance, but she has decided that, for now, walking out of the alliance would be even more damaging.
Says Suhail Bukhari, media consultant to the J&K government: “The decision to ally with the BJP was taken by Mufti [Mohammad Sayeed] Sahib. Mehbooba-ji has reiterated that she will remain true to the vision of the Mufti.” At the same time, Bukhari highlights the fundamental contradiction in the alliance: “the Agenda of Alliance is the only binding constraint on the PDP, as also the BJP. Neither side has abandoned its political ideologies.”
Given the stalemate in the valley, the next step is clearly in New Delhi’s hands. Said Rajnath Singh during his visit to Srinagar last month: “Let there be peace and everything will follow.” On the PDP’s foundation day rally, Mufti promised: “The sacrifices of those killed will not go in vain.” With Mufti currently consulting with top BJP leaders in New Delhi, the success or failure of the two alliance partners to craft a credible strategy for the valley is now literally a matter of life and death.