Violence in the border state following the killing of militant Burhan Wani last Friday has especially been on the high in South Kashmir, showing results of escalating tension in its four districts that had not long before been famous more for their placid apple orchards.
Pulwama, Anantnag, Shopian and Kulgam have been particularly on the boil since July 8 when security forces shot dead the Hizbul Mujahideen ‘poster boy’, and observers note that it stems from reasons much beyond the nativity of the 21-year-old commander.
Wani, who security forces killed in an encounter last Friday, hailed from Pulwama, which among the south Kashmir districts that have lately been in the focus for having become the new hotbed of homegrown militants. Locally trained, they may be less active when it comes to strikes on security forces, but these radical elements display ferocity on social media.
Post-Wani clashes between security forces and protesters claimed 31 lives till Tuesday morning, with a chunk of the casualties being reported from South Kashmir. There, the protests have been more violent even as retaliatory action has injured over 350 people overall in the Valley, according to police.
Sources estimate that the 10-district Kashmir Valley
has around 140 active militants, of whom “at least 90” are from within the state. Among them, a majority--no less than 65--belongs to South Kashmir, they add.
Of late, there has been a quick and steady rise in the number of homegrown militants from South Kashmir amid frequent encounters between militants and security forces. Militancy enjoys local support, too--the swelling numbers of mourners at every militant’s deaths is one proof to it. Over the past two years, people are openly seen lending support to the youth to storm encounter sites and help them out with a safe passage.
The trend, experts feel, is proportional to the rise in the number of local militants in last few years. If in 2013, 31 local youths joined militancy, the number for 2015 jumped to 66, according to police records.
Separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq calls the local boys a “symbol of resistance’’.
They are those, who, after a long time, are owning the resistance movement in Kashmir, adds Mirwaiz, who heads the Awami Action Committee that is a key faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference. “They take up arms, knowing that their life may end the very day, or within a week, month or a year. They know they can’t beat India’s military might, yet they do it,’’
For a while now, the youth in South Kashmir have been motivated by Wani, son of a school headmaster in South Kashmir’s Kulgam area. The slain militant used to stir their imagination on social networking sites by posting his photographs and videos along with fellow militants in full combat gear.
In the process, Wani prompted more militants to identify themselves before the public. For the first time, they put out mask-less pictures masks and began using social media as a recruitment tool.
Observers note that Wani’s videos even showed a human face of militancy: the youngster released visuals of his playing cricket with associates and spending leisure time under apple trees.
Soon Wani became a legend in the Valley, especially in South Kashmir, where children acted in plays that portrayed him as a hero. Cricket tournaments were hosted in the name of Wani, who became fondly called Burhan Bhaijan or Burhan Sahab by the residents.
Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) spokesman Waheed Para, who is a resident of Pulwama, agrees that Wani did enjoy a champion status. “Social media played a huge role in it. Earlier, we so no militants so openly,’’ adds the leader of the ruling party.
Para, 28, who is the PDP’s youth president, notes the phenomenon exists across the area. “Its a problem of the youth wanting political engagement, and is not just restricted to South. It is that Burhan’s death became a trigger,’’ he says.
Para calls the situation a serious concern for the state government. “We are battling to create a space for the youth, as all these problems now are a spillover of the street agitations we saw in 2008 and 2010 besides after the hanging of Afzal Guru (in 2013),” he says. Data show that more people took to arms after the execution of the Kashmiri separatist three years ago following his conviction in the 2001 Parliament attack case, he adds.
Political analysts feel the youth in South Kashmir had additional factors to feel hopeless--as did many others in the Valley on being denied political space post the 2010 street agitation of 2010. South Kashmir, which has been a Mufti bastion--more so after the conception of PDP almost two decades ago--felt betrayed after the party’s alliance with the nationalist BJP.
The 1998-formed PDP, with its soft separatist agenda, did appeal to supporters of both local militants and socio-religious group Jamat-e-Islami. Today, even leaders of the party founded by late Union minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, agree the PDP does not enjoy the same degree of popularity. It is evident from a slide in the poll percentage at the recent assembly election where current chief minister Mehbooba Mufti contested in the seat that fell vacant after her father, a two-time CM, died in January this year. It is another matter Mehbooba’s win from Anantnag was marked with a record margin.
The PDP’s ‘betrayal’ became a rallying point for those with separatist ideology. “The area also has more influence of radical forces,” a PDP leader notes. “The most influenced are the educated from well-to-do families.’’
South Kashmir, though, was the focal point even during the 2009 street protests that followed the alleged twin rape and murder of two young woman in Shopian that May. Government investigations dismissed the deaths as a result of drowning--something which lingers unpleasantly in people’s mind even today.
Currently, South Kashmir is more volatile than the rest of the state, but peaceful belts up north of the state, too, are facing problems of late. “Handwara, which was considered to be a peaceful area, erupted over an alleged molestation of a girl recently,” points out senior journalist Altaf Hussain.
Experts liken the entire Valley to be a “dormant volcano” simmering with the lava of public outrage that warrants the Centre’s engagement with the state’s youth.
Mirwaiz, who Kashmir Muslims see as their spiritual leader, finds irony in the stance of prime minister Narendra Modi at his just-concluded four-nation Africa tour. “There, he invoked Mahatma Gandhi as a messiah of peace. Back in his country, the NDA regime is killing innocent Kashmiri teenagers,” he says. “What double standards!”