By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 2nd August 16
Three weeks after idolised Hizbul Mujahideen militant, Burhan Wani, was killed by the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) Police in an encounter near Anantnag in southern Kashmir, the valley continues to seethe. In Srinagar, extended curfews have failed to end furious stone pelting by violent mobs.
I visit the city’s so-called Downtown area at 6 p.m. in the evening, after hearing that curfew would be briefly lifted at 6.30 p.m. This locality has long been the stronghold of the Mirwaiz of Kashmir, currently the soft-spoken Omar Farooq, whose Awami Action Committee anchors the separatist Hurriyat Conference. But the Mirwaiz, like other Hurriyat leaders, counts for little now. Separatist leadership is now in the hands of fresh-faced Kashmir youths, some as young as 16, who are following their impulses without coordination or thought.
Bearing the brunt of their blind anger against any manifestation of the Indian state is a mixed posse of J&K Police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, who have spent the day on “curfew enforcement”; strung out across the locality in small, exposed groups of 3-4 troopers. At 6.15 p.m., I join them as they reel in towards a central collection point. On their heels follow the “stone pelters” --- official terminology in the J&K security establishment.
The daily confrontation that follows bears an indescribable fury. Running out from homes and alleyways, the youngsters use slingshots and their bare arms to hurl large stones that ricochet off protected vehicles and bounce dangerously off the street. The police are under strict instructions to moderate their response; no agitator should be killed or badly injured --- an eventuality that could trigger stepped up violence. Under pressure from the advancing mob, the troopers fire teargas to push back the darting youths. The 12-guage shotguns are loaded, but held in reserve in case the troopers are getting swamped. After what seems like a lifetime, the police withdraw into heavily guarded police stations, ceding the space outside to the mob.
This frightening contest takes place each time curfew is lifted. I ask Inspector Javed Bhat (name changed to protect his identity), who has just overseen this withdrawal, how everyone handles the danger. “We let them vent their anger. As long as no agitator is injured, we consider it a job well done”, he says grimly.
This sums up the strategy for calming down the valley after 55 Kashmiri deaths and some 2,000 injuries, including 300 that required hospitalization. Many of these took place when rampaging mobs were about to overrun police stations and outposts. With panic-stricken troopers firing shotguns at point blank ranges, the 450 pellets in each cartridge blinded many agitators, stoking anger further.
Yet Srinagar represents the good news for the administration. In parts of South Kashmir, especially in Pulwama district, the government’s writ has effectively ceased to run. The locals have begun calling Pulwama a “liberated zone”. Shuja’at Bukhari, editor of the valley’s second-biggest English daily, Rising Kashmir, described a procession of 30,000 locals on Sunday, screaming for “azaadi” (freedom) at the local “martyr’s graveyard”. That protest featured several armed militants, including Abu Dujana, the local Lashkar-e-Toiba commander who hails from Pakistan. On Monday, it was the turn of Shopian, where 10,000 people came out in protest.
South Kashmir was the stamping ground of Burhan Wani, who was less a conventional gun-wielding militant than a social media celebrity, with his videos urging Kashmiris to join the Hizbul Mujahideen. Says a senior police officer: “Without firing a shot, Burhan became more dangerous than other militants.”
So furious was the reaction to his killing, that mobs in South Kashmir burnt three police stations to the ground --- Damhal Khushipora, Damhal Hanjipora and Kokernag. Police posts were torched in Soibugh and Sopore Fruit Mandi. The J&K Police’s “Special Operations Group” (SOG), the unit that actually shot down Burhan Wani, paid an especially heavy price: four SOG camps were set ablaze --- Litter, Rohmu, Lassipora and Hasanpora Bijbehara.
With the protests spiraling out of control, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti turned to vehemently anti-India leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, asking him to rein in the mobs. Geelani, worried at the anarchy, obliged, appealing to the mobs on June 10 not to damage police stations and ambulances “as it can be an excuse for the government to prove it is not guilty.”
Asked whether there is a strategy to regain control, Suhail Bukhari, the J&K government’s media consultant said: “We are avoiding a vicious cycle of violence where each death leads to another, and further inflames the situation.”
While Mehbooba Mufti has launched an outreach programme to visit the families of locals killed, there is eerie silence from New Delhi. Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited Kashmir a week ago, but the prime minister has remained silent.
For a valley on the boil, this is further proof that New Delhi simply does not care. There was little love for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, under which the valley experienced three successive summers of turmoil: in 2008, over the proposal to acquire land for the Amarnath Yatra; in 2009, over the deaths of two women in Shopian; and in 2010 over the killings of civilians in Machhil in a fake encounter. Now, there is even greater resentment at the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, with Kashmiris deeply resenting issues like the beef ban, the Dadri lynching, and a series of local controversies that are perceived as an assault on the Kashmiri identity --- not least the apprehension that New Delhi intends to change the valley’s demographic profile by establishing “Pandit colonies” and “Sainik colonies”.