Friday, Dec 08, 2023

Streetside Plebiscite

Streetside Plebiscite

A young militant is killed. In death, he becomes an icon. And the streets speak freedom.

Lightning Rod Photograph by Getty Images

Kashmir is back to its ominous normal. The Valley is on the boil after the killing of young and charismatic militant commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani by police on July 8. The spontaneous, leaderless outbursts of anger and grief have caught everyone by surprise and, not confined to Burhan’s native Tral town in the south, have spread far and wide across the Valley. It’s a dramatic replay of the 2008 and 2010 agitations: people defying curfew, braving bullets, taking to the streets in overwhelming numbers. Their demand: azadi, or freedom from India.

However, the protests are dissimilar from those of the rec­ent past­—more violent and angrier, they are reminiscent of the early 1990s. Symbols of ‘India’, for example, were largely spared in the earlier street ‘intifadas’; now, they are targeted with unparalleled ferocity. The epicentre of these protests is south Kashmir, bastion of chief minister Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP. Protesters have set ablaze two BJP offices, two dozen pol­ice camps, a PDP legislator’s house, CRPF posts, army bunkers and several government vehicles. They’ve also tried to storm a major IAF base, while houses of activists and leaders of pro-India parties, seen by many as “collaborators” and “India’s agents” have been attac­ked too. A police station was taken over and its armoury looted. The violence cast a shadow over the Amarnath yatra too.

The security forces have, as usual, res­ponded with bullets. It’s a protest-firing-more protests-more deaths cycle. At least 37 people—aged 13 to 40—have died. Among them is a woman. One policeman lost his life when a mob tipped his vehicle into the Jhelum. A whopping 1,400 people have been injured, mostly by bullet and mostly above the waist. Some are serious, so the death toll could go up. Worst are the pellet injuries: some 100 youths have got them, from Israeli-style cartridges loaded with some 500 iron balls and billed as non-lethal. Doctors say most of them are likely to be blinded, at least in one eye.

For the Mehbooba-led PDP-BJP government, the only silver lining is that Srinagar, the capital and also the headquarters of the azadi movement, has been relatively free of casualties (unlike in 2010). Still, anti-India protests and clashes were being rep­orted from all areas of the city and mosques are blaring revolutionary songs from loudspeakers. All but three of the 37 deaths have occurred in south Kashmir, half of them in Anantnag, Mehbooba’s native district. The one death in Srinagar was in Tengpora: Shabir Ahmed, a 21-year-old mason, was chased and killed by cops near his house and in front of his father. In the 2008 and 2010 protests, the capital had had the biggest bodycount.


Was ‘Operation Burhan’ faultily managed? Reports and eyewitnesses say he could have been captured alive. It’s said a party of the police’s special operations group (SOG) rushed from Srinagar to Kokernag on a tipoff that he was in a house in Bumdoora village. Given the new bounty policy for killing ‘Most Wanted’ militants, they didn’t pass on the information to their counterparts in the south. Some local residents say Burhan and two associates were playing cricket in an orchard on July 8 afternoon. “When they saw the SOG vehicle approaching, they tried to run away, but they were shot dead,” says a witness. “I can tell you, the boys weren’t carrying weapons, they weren’t killed in an encounter. They were simply bumped off.” He adds that the bullet marks too indicate they were shot in the back at point-blank range.

Since K. Rajendra Kumar took over as DGP of Jammu & Kashmir police two years ago, the policy was changed to give cops prize money and promotions only if they kill a militant in an encounter. Earlier, even capturing a militant would be enough. This explains the sharp spurt in the number of militants killed in recent months. A source says that, despite reservations from senior officers, Kumar, who is retiring later this year, went ahead with the new policy. “Would the cops travel 80 km­—Srinagar to Kokernag—to capture him alive for nothing?” asks the source. “Burhan had a bounty of Rs 10 lakh on his head. The policy has turned cops into killers.”

Burhan’s killing started a race among security officers to take credit. Such was the jubilation in police that Shiv Murari Sahai, the additional DGP, called a hurried press conference on July 9 to confirm Burhan’s death even as protests were beginning. By the time it was over, at least 13 protesters had fallen to security forces’ bullets.

Post It

Burhan Wani (circled) with comrades in a photo on a Facebook page

Sahai said Mehbooba, also the home minister, knew of the op. But, as things have spun out of control, the police is struggling to explain the circumstances. Officers vainly insist the intel input wasn’t Burhan-specific. “It wasn’t a targeted killing,” says Sahai. “He was killed in retaliatory fire.”

There’s much criticism that the reaction Burhan’s killing has provoked was not ant­icipated. Says Gen Ata Hasnain, former chief of the army’s Srinagar-based 15 Corps, “I don’t think the army, the IB and the pol­ice, which jointly undertook this op, took this into consideration. Such decisions are always difficult: the choice is between taking down a prized target or waiting.” He says, if the Valley continues to burn for long, “then I think it was an unwise decision to carry out the op at this time”. Police, however, insist the protests are in isolated pockets and fringes. “I can’t say it was a miscalculation. We envisaged the epicentre would be Tral (Burhan’s native area). The epicentre was managed properly. The more intense protests happened at isolated pockets or fringes,” says Sahai, weakly.


Mehbooba seems to have completely lost the plot, her handling of the situation as pathetic, if not more, as that of Omar Abdullah during his tenure as CM, when the Valley erupted six years ago. He’d been on holiday with his family in Gulmarg when Srinagar was seething over the killing of the teenaged Tufail Mattoo by pol­ice. Mehbooba has been silent but for two statements. Her legislators are yet to visit their constituencies. The only media briefing has been from minister and government spokesman Naeem Akhtar. But his press meet has done more harm than good: asked some tough questions, the minister, nicknamed wazeer-e-tardeed (minister for denials), walked out.

To be fair, Mehbooba, like her predecessor, was actually never in command. For that matter, every elected government in Kashmir is at the mercy of the security agencies in critical situations. This has given birth to the belief here that CMs and ministers are mere puppets of New Delhi. During the 2010 agitation, for example, then home secretary G.K. Pillai once ann­ounced the relaxation of curfew in Srinagar from Delhi, prompting Omar to clarify that his was not a puppet government and it didn’t befit the home secretary to do what he did. In opposition, Mehbooba would taunt Omar about his failure to rein in the security forces and the killings of  protesters in the four-month agitation. But since taking over, she herself has been proved powerless: take the killing of five civilians by the army in Handwara in April after the alleged molestation of a girl by a soldier.

Troubled Air

A couple darts for cover as protesters take on police

Photograph by AP

The current unrest has reinforced that impression. She herself has dropped hints that police and paramilitary forces are bey­ond her control. “Disproportionate use of force for crowd control results in loss of precious lives and grave injuries which should be avoided at all costs,” she says. At one point, she appealed to parents “not to allow anyone to play with the future of their children”, almost repeating what Omar used to say during the 2010 crisis. She says her government will order a probe into the encounter deaths and those that occu­rred during protests, but hundreds of such probes have inspired no confidence. Law professor Sheikh Showkat Hussain says, “It’s certain nobody would be punished.” Thanks, of course, to AFSPA. Now there are jokes on social media in which Mehbooba and Omar exchange boasts about how many deaths each has managed to score in so many months of being in power.

Indeed, the security agencies—and there is a plethora of them, which is one of the causes of the mess—call the shots here. As an edit in the Greater Kashmir newspaper says: “Once again the security establishment has shown itself singularly incapable of handling unarmed protests and have found killing people easier to the option of patient mob control.” It goes on to add that “the fact is that the killings now are not new but part of a familiar pattern...if anything, this shows a callous disregard for the civilian life in Kashmir. And one incentive for this is the least accountability for such killings.” Indeed, people wonder why similar protests in other parts of the country are dealt with professionally and largely without loss of life. The PDP’s ruling partner, though, is unapologetic. RSS ideologue Ram Madhav had even tweeted the government would stand firm “eruption or no eruption”. It hasn’t gone down well.

There seems no end to Mehbooba’s miseries. She faces a rebellion of sorts within her camp. Party members say the BJP has nothing to lose politically in the Valley, and rightly fear that the rising death toll in south Kashmir, the PDP’s bastion, will have far-reaching consequences for the party. Some senior party members are out in public, questioning Mehbooba’s decision to continue the alliance with the BJP. Tariq Karra, a PDP founding member and MP from Srinagar, says it’s a betrayal of the mandate given to the party which has further alienated the people. “The very idea of bringing the North Pole closer to the South Pole (as Mehbooba’s father and late CM Mufti Sayeed had put it) is unnatural. According to Muslim faith, that would only happen on the day of annihilation, that is, the Day of Judgement,” he says.


What are the reasons for the sudden upr­ising? The consensus is, the azadi protests over Burhan’s killing are “nothing but the symptom of the old, untreated disease”, the Kashmir issue, the key to which, according to many, lies with Delhi.

Political historian Ashiq Hussain Bhat says it just takes a spark to ignite passions in Kashmir—this time the spark being Burhan’s killing. “Otherwise, thousands of militants have died before Burhan. Afzal Guru was hanged three years go, but Kashmir did not erupt as it did now,” he says. “Afzals and Burhans will be there from time to time, and Kashmir will continue to bleed unless the dispute is resolved.”

A civil liberty activist seeks to blame, among other things, the policy to bring in non-Kashmiri troopers and ex-troopers to Kashmir, allowing industry to access land there, building fortified colonies for Kashmiri Pandits. He says this points to control resting in the hands of Delhi, and add to this vortex the role of the Hindutva forces and only a closed mind would fail to see the consequences. “Just as obduracy of the government in 1986-89 created the conflict situation, the brutal suppression let loose since 1989-90 has turned Kashmir into a military garrison. They are everywhere—in bunkers, checkposts, drop gates, behind concertina fences, camps, cantonments, fortifications, on roads, all too visible presence,” he says.

Pilgrim Path

Ama­­r­­nath yatris stranded by the protest in Kashmir

Photograph by Getty Images

Politicians across all divides say Delhi has always seen Kashmir as a mere law and order problem. As Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, chairman of the ‘moderate’ faction of Hurriyat Conference, put it, “The Indians don’t want to read the writing on the wall. They don’t want to acknowledge the political problem.” He mocks at the government’s appeals to the Hurriyat to help in restoring calm. Until last week, he says, the government was saying separatists are a threat to peace in Kashmir. “Our leadership has been jailed and now the government is seeking our help. It is like digging a well at the time of fire. It has always been the case with this government and New Delhi too,” he says. “Peace can’t be created in a vacuum.”

Mirwaiz’s counterpart in Hurriyat’s ‘hardline’ faction, Syed Ali Geelani, the aging godfather to  many youths like Bur­han, says, “We can’t say we are in absolute control of the situation. The government has not allowed democratic forces to flourish. I am under house arrest since 2010. We aren’t allowed to meet people and the government wants us to help restore peace.”

Adds Ali Mohammad Sagar, a senior party colleague of Omar Abdullah, “We are not listening to our youth. We don’t let them say anything.” He says that when the popular sentiment is crushed with brute force, there are consequences as we are witnessing today. “Our government made a mistake (in 2010), and now the present regime is making a similar one,” says Sagar, who represents Khanyar, a downtown Srinagar constituency, in the assembly. Former Union minister Saifuddin Soz, of the Congress, says, “It is deplorable that Delhi’s power elite have broken the very instruments that would help it to be in touch with the reality in Kashmir and understand youth and the concerns in their mind.”

All Shut

Troops stand by as women come out for essentials during curfew

Photograph by Getty Images

Abdur Rauf, an engineer, says that when Kashmiris come out on the streets, they are labelled as misguided puppets in hands of separatists and Pakistani agencies, “as if we are brainless sheep”, but when they participate in elections organised and conducted by India, they immediately become wise, mature, independent. “The former is instigation, the latter is referendum!”

Inam ul Rehman, who teaches journalism at the University of Kashmir, blames New Delhi’s “ostrich-like” approach for the mess. “For the Indian state and a section of its conformist media, the tourist influx remains the barometer of gauging the mood in Kashmir,” he says. “They still say that Pakistan is behind the fresh uprising in the Valley. Last time (during the 2010 agitation), they made a fool of themselves when they came out with the nonsensical theory that stones are transported from Pakistan into the Valley.”

Rehman says that a brief lull is portrayed as the return of normalcy. In fact, he says, it’s a temporary peace, a peace as of the graveyard. “But they tend to think otherwise, and they tend to deceive themselves,” he says. “India says that Kashmir is an integral part of it. Nearly 70 years since Partition, Kashmiris are, however, still out on the streets shouting ‘Go back India, go back’. Isn’t something terribly wrong there? Don’t they get the message,” he asks.

Indeed, one wonders whether New Delhi has any answer, beyond financial packages and sending more troops, to the crisis in Kashmir. The dialogue process with separatist groups remains frozen since the times of the UPA government. Then prime minister Manmohan Singh had, immediately after the summer agitation in 2010, appointed a group of three interlocutors (see column by one of the interlocutors) to hold sustained dialogue with all sections of the people in Kashmir. The interlocutors submitted their report in May 2012 to then Union home minister P. Chidambaram, who had asserted that Kashmir “is a unique problem which needs a unique solution.” The panel had suggested, among other things, a meaningful autonomy, a massive development package, and withdrawal of the AFSPA and the Disturbed Areas Act from the state. As the general elections were round the corner, the panel’s recommendations went unheeded. It’s unlikely that the Modi government would make any fresh move on Kashmir.

Old Page

Mehbooba at the graves of those killed in the 1931 uprising

Photograph by AP

Senior journalist Hilal Mir says, “In the 1990s, the Indian state sent a huge number of soldiers to crush the armed revolt in Kashmir which enjoyed an overwhelming public support.” And 27 years down the line, “as people of Kashmir remain defiant, the policy of the Indian state remains unchanged”, says Mir, alluding to Union home minister Rajnath Singh’s announcement to send more paramilitary troops to the Valley. CPI(M) MLA Yousuf Tarigami also questions the need for sending more troops here. He says that Modi’s appeal for peace to the people of Kashmir after his return from abroad is welcome, but INS­tead of sending more troops, it would have been appropriate to dispatch doctors and medicine to treat the victims of brute violence. “Kashmiris are faced with a big human tragedy,” says Tarigami. “What is required is a humane approach and concrete measures from the authorities to stop unwarranted use of force against unarmed protesters,” he says.

Burhan’s death has infused a fresh lease of life into Kashmir’s azadi movement. In his native town Tral, there seems to be no end to people thronging his residence. A local journalist, Khalid Gul, told Outlook that mourners are coming in mini-buses, load-carriers, trucks, cars and motorcycles. They chant pro-freedom, pro-Burhan and anti-India slogans and many of them carry Pakistani flags. A large billboard erected outside Burhan’s house reads, ‘Burhan, the pride of the nation.’ Gul says that a group of four militants also appeared at Burhan’s grave on his ‘chaharum’ (fourth day of mourning) on July 12. “They offered gun salute to their fallen commander and later shouted pro-Pakistan slogans. All the four militants were guarded by the locals till they left,” he says. Last week, nearly a dozen gunmen had turned up at his funeral, which was attended by an estimated 2,00,000 people. It was the second biggest funeral for a militant in Kashmir after JKLF commander Ashfaq Majeed Wani. Around half a million people had joined the funeral of Wani in Srinagar in 1990. Contrast this with ex-CM Mufti Sayeed’s funeral in January this year. Only about 1,000 people, mostly bureaucrats, ministers and political leaders, had participated in that funeral.

At the moment, Burhan is undoubtedly an icon, a role model for many young Kashmiris. As Omar Abdullah put it, “Mark my words—Burhan’s ability to rec­ruit into militancy from the grave will far outstrip anything he could have done on social media.” What Kashmir needs, though, is a government that puts an end to the ongoing bloodbath so that more Burhans do not rise from the ashes.

By Showkat A. Motta in Srinagar