The Kashmir Valley was savouring Eid after the month-long Ramazan fast when news of a shootout trickled in with the evening summer breeze on July 8.
More news poured in soon after. Burhan Wani, the 22-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen poster boy and face of a resurgent local militancy after nearly two decades, was shot dead. What was dismissed as rumour minutes earlier shook the Valley — and aftershocks are continuing to shake the troubled region.
Summer rain drenched Kashmir days on end, but failed to calm the anger as tens of thousands of people poured into the streets and took the first available transport to Tral — Wani’s native, restive town in south Kashmir.
More than half-a-million people gathered for the militant’s funeral, according to independent estimates. Much more than the funeral of chief minister and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) patriarch Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, whose death on January 7 shoved the state into three months of political uncertainty.
The young militant’s namaz-e-janaza, or funeral prayer, was offered 40 times to accommodate people. The burial scheduled for the morning happened late in the afternoon. Kashmir has not recorded such public reaction for years. Former chief minister Omar Abdullah was quick to react that “a dead Burhan could be more lethal” because “Kashmir’s disaffected got a new icon”.
The Valley plunged into violence; angry mobs threw stones and tried to torch police stations and official buildings. Anti-India slogans filled the air.
The authorities panicked — telephone and internet services were snapped. The curfew followed; the longest spell of 51 days without relaxation. The next casualties in the following days and months were thousands of men, women and children. Security forces fired bullets and pellets; the official non-lethal ammunition for mob control. Around 91 people were killed and more than 12,000 wounded as the cycle of death went on for months.
Pellet guns became the brutal, diabolical face of street battles. The non-deadly weapon killed and maimed. About 1,100 people lost sight in one eye or both; some will struggle to live with permanent disabilities. Even homes were not safe. Bursts of pellets pierced through windows, doors and wood walls, taking down children.
The unrest gave relevance to the separatists, who called strikes and shutdowns almost every day. The muezzin’s call to prayer followed a hate-filled rant in mosques. The authorities pandered the tirade as an excuse to tighten their clampdown — and fire more pellets at people swelling the protests. Trade came to a standstill, shops were shut; schools opened only on weekends when separatists announced a “normal” day. The state education department announced mass promotion for students from class 1 to 8.
South Kashmir, famous for its apple orchards, was the worst hit as it was the turf of homegrown militants such as Wani. Kashmir’s sweetest and crunchiest gift didn’t reach fellow countrymen because of the shutdown this apple season.
Wani’s death was perhaps the tipping point. But the anger was a reflection of the people’s growing cynicism against the PDP when it joined hands with the BJP to rule the state together after a fractured verdict in the 2014 elections. It was perceived as a “betrayal”, a rallying point for those harbouring separatist sentiments.
The anger was evident as the Valley didn’t shut down for a day when chief minister Sayeed died.
“The Centre never addressed the anti-India sentiment. It simply tried to shut up the people by force … a first-aid kind of approach.”
The Valley was surcharged over the government’s announcement of making a military campus and a separate colony for rehabilitation of migrant Pandits. A high court bench in Srinagar upheld that the state flag must be unfurled next to the national flag on government buildings, while another bench insisted on enforcing a beef ban. People felt the PDP was helping the BJP to do away with Article 370, the constitutional provision that accords special status to the state.
Kashmir is boiling this winter over alleged reports of government issuing domicile certificates to West Pakistani Refugees, families who migrated during Partition. They remain refugees with no right to vote. But any attempt to change their status is viewed as an affront towards Article 370. The Valley is a dormant volcano. “The Centre never addressed the anti-India sentiment. It simply tried to shut up the people by force … a first-aid kind of approach,” said Shiekh Mushtaq, senior journalist.
WERE INJURED, mostly by shotguns or pellet guns which fire sharp metallic particles towards the protesters. The supposed non-lethal weapon needs to be fired below the waistline to avoid injuries to vital organs, however majority had injuries on their face and upper body. While there are no figures for those injured by bullets, HT during the course of reporting found hundreds with bullet injuries as well.WOUNDED DUE TO PELLETS 7,000 | BLINDEDDUE TO PELLETS1,10051 continuous curfew days: Valley recorded the longest spell of curfew in its history. Curfew without relaxation was imposed for 51 days at a stretch.
Schools shut down: Schools were closed following the protests after Wani’s death. As children lost five months, government announced mass promotion for students from class 1 to class 9.
Kashmir’s return to normality will be crucial. After keeping Kashmir shut for months, separatists claimed moral victory and asked people to be prepared for a long resistance movement ahead. The strategy, they insist, has to be long term. For the first time the separatist leaders in Kashmir have cutailed their weekly shutdown calendar announcing a five day relaxation.In a joint statement Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik said that they were developing a lone term protest strategy which would have "minimum costs for the people". The three leaders have been jointly issuing a weekly protest and shutdown programme after mass protests erupted in the Valley over the death of Hizbul mujahideen leader Burhan Wani on July 8.
Mehbooba Mufti’s tenure in normal times remains to be seen. Mufti, who came to power in March, was seen appealing to people for a chance to prove her worth. The development work that missed deadlines in 2016 needs to be completed at a fast pace. She and her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had tried to sell the alliance with the BJP, promising development and more employment opportunities. Whether Mehbooba can inch closer to that promise in 2017 is likely to have an impact on her political career in the Valley.TOURISM RETURNS
While 2016 had seen a record number of tourists till July, rest of the season was marred by unrest.Separatists have now issued an appeal to tourists to return next year guaranteeing their safety, giving hope to a section of people whose life and livelihood depends on the tourism sector. Whether the economy which was first hit by unrest and than demonetisation can recover needs to be seen. "For now, Kashmiris seem in no mood to spend. If things are normal in spring then only will the businesses see a push. For now, uncertainty looms large,’’ said Fayaz Ahmad a trader in Lal Chowk area. Much depends on return of tourists.
For more of HT’s coverage of the past year, visit http://www.hindustantimes.com/year-ender-2016