A Kashmiri militant’s funeral 26 years ago had drawn attendance at least as large as Burhan Wani’s did on July 9. Ishfaq Majid Wani, who was designated chief commander of the JKLF, was killed on March 30, 1990; his funeral at Srinagar’s Idgah was probably much larger than Burhan’s at Tral’s Idgah. The difference is that the only television channel in those days was Doordarshan.
It is worth noting that the slopes leading to the Line of Control came alive after Ishfaq’s death; daily, thousands tried to cross for training and arms through April. Muzaffarabad’s infrastructure broke down; for a while, the ISI was forced to turn boys back after a couple of days’ perfunctory training. Relatively few Kashmiri militants cross the Line of Control now. Since large numbers of rifles and other arms have been snatched during the current unrest, another spurt in militancy could occur without any mass LoC crossings.
The point here is not to dispute Pakistan’s role, nor to compare the popularity of the two iconic militants separated by a generation — and by innovations such as social media. The point is to compare the response of the State to those vast funeral throngs, and the violent trends in their aftermath. Sadly, the situation is vastly different but the responses are much the same.
The political class appears to be as willing to respond with empathy as it was 26 years ago, but seems as clueless about what to do as it then was. Cash and paramilitary remain central to the State’s response. The discussion in the Rajya Sabha on Monday, the first of the monsoon session, showed creditable unity and political will to do the right thing. Pakistan was blamed. A parliamentary delegation to the Valley was recommended. Some alluded to the need to talk to leaders of Hurriyat groups. Most urged minimum force, and criticised the use of pellet guns.
Pellet guns should indeed be dumped. Pakistan deserves to be blamed. But political responses need to go beyond that. They need to be imaginative. A parliamentary delegation visited Kashmir around the time Ishfaq was killed too. Led by the deputy prime minister, Devi Lal, and including the leader of the opposition, Rajiv Gandhi, it could hardly have had a higher profile. But its interactions with politicians (like the late Iftekhar Ansari) and common people (including some of the staff of the Sher-e-Kashmir International Convention Centre, the farthest they went) had touches of irony.
The most important result was that the railway minister, George Fernandes, was appointed Kashmir affairs minister. Fernandes stayed back when the delegation returned to Delhi, and engaged with Mirwaiz Farooq, and later with Abdul Ahad Guroo, the mentor of Ishfaq and other JKLF commanders (nothing to do with Afzal Guru).
Fernandes’ efforts were well advised, but too late. By the time that parliamentary delegation visited Kashmir on March 17, 1990, Pakistan had already sidelined the JKLF and begun to push the Hizb-ul Mujahideen centre-stage. From January that year, Syed Ali Shah Geelani had taken charge of coordinating that switch — urged by Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami and the ISI.
Speeches during Monday’s Rajya Sabha discussion did not reflect an awareness of how far those sorts of political options have been marginalised. Burhan Wani was the icon of a new generation, one that was born during, and shaped by, violence, insecurity and despair. That despair extends to a rejection of a range of political leaders including the various offshoots of the Hurriyat Conference. Burhan was designated divisional commander of Hizb, but that does not mean that Hizb as an organisation, or its leader, Syed Salahuddin, commands enough youth respect to be able to negotiate peace.
It is sad that the spectrum of political parties is stuck with one of two strategies. One is the counterproductive belief that street anger in Kashmir can be crushed by force. The other that a deal involving maximum autonomy can be made with a ‘leader’ of the Kashmiri ‘movement’.
As was noted during Monday’s parliamentary debate, this strategy has been in play since at least 1995, when Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao said that ‘the sky is the limit’ for autonomy. It did not work — even when the youth were amenable to Hurriyat leaders. Now, a new generation has grown up. It has discarded the bunch of one-time leaders as corrupt, self-serving and forked-tongued. The bribes doled out by the State over the years have not only not worked, they have kept instability alive. That suits a host of vested interests — on various sides. But it is also a major cause of youth anger today.
In order to respond sensibly to the recent unrest, political initiatives must be undertaken to reach out to this generation at a mass level. By and large, they do not accept their own parents’ attempts to restrain them; they are impervious to ‘leaders’ — local, Pakistani or farther afield — apart from some distant Islamist figures.
Political responses must include social, educational and economic initiatives. But the latter must go beyond job-creation. Economic patterns must be developed to replace the cash-and-carry dole economy. It angers young people. Central schemes like the ‘Udaan’ employment training project have failed. Reserving seats, with scholarships, for Kashmiris in universities across the country has had limited success.
The first chapter of the Rangarajan committee report noted that at the beginning of this decade there were extraordinary discrepancies between the National Sample Survey data and those from Kashmir’s employment bureaus. To make sense of what ‘jobs’ means, one has to understand the aspirations unleashed, and perceptions about bottlenecks, three generations after the most sweeping land reforms anywhere in the world outside the Communist bloc.
An adequate response needs incisive sociological understanding, and sustained engagement. All-party meetings and delegation visits are at best a symbolic starting point.
David Devadas is a senior journalist based in Kashmir . The views expressed are personal.