A new militancy has emerged in Kashmir. Nine attacks by gunmen were reported during March. The boldest in a long time was the suicide attack on CRPF men on March 13. The combination of two major factors makes this a more dangerous round than the one that began in 1989 and ended by 2006. The first factor is the impending withdrawal of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) forces from Afghanistan. It could have a violent impact on Kashmir. There are signs that different factions of the Taliban are jockeying to regain a foothold there — and some of them have announced their intention to turn their attention to Kashmir. Pakistan’s army too will surely try and regain control over post-war Afghanistan. If the army manages to install pliable favourites in the next Pakistan government, and also regains at least partial control over Afghanistan, it may encourage the jihadi forces that have already set their sights on Kashmir. They will want to do so even if only to keep those jihadis off Pakistan’s streets.
The second factor that has made the current situation extremely volatile is the alienation of large sections of Kashmiri youth. Delhi’s propagandists tend to perceive Kashmiris in frames that crystallised in the early 1990s — as generally secessionist and supportive of militancy. The result is that, after militancy abated in the middle of the last decade (a classic example of a 15-year insurgency), Kashmiris experienced the continued presence of overwhelming numbers of the armed forces not only as humiliating, oppressive and extortionist but also now as wanton. Most of the current generation of Kashmiri youth grew up disillusioned with violence. They wanted to settle down in peace, if they could do so with dignity. This is particularly true of young Kashmiri women, and poorer Kashmiris.
There was a great opportunity to reach out with what Mufti Mohammed Sayeed called a ‘healing touch’ when he was the chief minister. In fact, AB Vajpayee did much to heal Kashmir when he was the prime minister. Thereafter, the people were treated to more of the same counterinsurgency apparatus. The army resolutely refused to scale down its deployment. The state responded with repression, including excessive resort to firing, when politics led to a crisis in 2008, and again in 2010, when Kashmiris took to the streets to protest the framing and killing of innocent citizens as so-called terrorists. Inhuman curfew restrictions, news black-outs and bullets rather than water cannons continue to increase distress. And Kashmiris’ perception that justice was not done to Afzal Guru has increased their impression that the Indian State reflexively discriminates against them, or against Muslims in general.
This betrayal of hopes has generated great anger in a generation that mainly sought economic opportunities just a few years ago. Those who would push a new militancy have obviously spotted the opportunity this anger affords. But it seems as if those who run some of the arms of the state thrive on burying their heads in the sand while distress leads to alienation, then becomes tinder for violence to erupt. Despite rumours of fresh infiltration, arms and the disappearance of boys for training since 2009, the government remained in denial. Chief minister Omar Abdullah pooh-poohed such talk a year-and-a-half ago, saying there was no chance of the gun coming back. He added that Kashmiri youth used to pelt stones in the ’80s, and had returned to that tactic. As if treating stone-pelting as par for the course were not enough, the CM willfully undermined democratic institutions that could have provided vents for frustrations. He defanged the state’s Right To Information (RTI). His government humiliated and discredited (or co-opted into the existing corrupt state apparatus) Kashmir’s first lot of panches — who are now sitting ducks for militants.
Omar Abdullah also dismissed the idea that the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA) had been overused to threaten, coerce and victimise boys, and to extort money. This J&K law allows the police to lock up a citizen without charge for two years. It was promulgated as an ordinance in November 1977, when the CM’s grandfather, Sheikh Abdullah, was chief minister. It replaced Emergency black laws such as the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (Misa), which the Janata Party government in New Delhi had repealed that year. Abdullah’s ordinance elicited such a chorus of protest from national dailies and Indian civil society that home minister Charan Singh was forced to declare that the Centre was not consulted. Undeterred, Sheikh Abdullah had the ordinance converted into law amid pandemonium in the assembly. Omar Abdullah recently repeated his grandfather’s excuse — that the law was meant to counter timber smuggling.
The Centre’s role too has been dismal — particularly after P Chidambaram moved out of the home ministry. The clumsy handling of Afzal Guru’s execution, and the political miscalculations behind it, angered Kashmiris at least as much as the still unpunished murder of three innocent boys by an army unit at Machil in 2010. For generations, analysts will draw parallels between Guru’s execution and the rigging of the 1987 elections.
A major reason the militancy that began after 1987 ended was that, by the middle of the last decade, militants found it extremely difficult to get shelter or assistance in Kashmiri homes. More often than not, their presence was reported to authorities. That many Kashmiris would support and even join them today is a tragedy scripted by the government.
David Devadas is the author of In Search of a Future: The Story of Kashmir
The views expressed by the author are personal