It’s yesterday again: Kashmir’s old wounds need political healing
Militant commander Burhan Wani’s killing has prized open old wounds that will continue to fester. The answer lies in political engagement, not weapons of ‘oppression’
A group of grief-stricken women sitting in a room, separate from the men, are wailing loudly in a hamlet in south Kashmir. The family has just buried its youngest son, 15-year-old Irfan Ahmed Malik, and offered prayers. Irfan, the family says, was returning from his father’s shop and passing a group of enraged stone pelters when he was hit by a bullet.
Irfan joined the list of over 30 civilians who have died since the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani. The 22-year-old Wani wasn’t just another militant but a ‘symbol of resistance’ eulogised by Kashmiri youth who have now taken to the streets in protests that have led to an unprecedented clampdown in the Valley.
Gurwan Poshwan, the hamlet in south Kashmir, lies bang in the middle of a conflict zone that has seen an incessant exchange of stones and bullets since Burhan’s killing on July 8. Groups of 10 to 20 stone-wielding youth stand by the roadside, every 200 metres, as we try and make our journey from Srinagar to Pulwama. The media has not been allowed into south Kashmir after Burhan’s burial on July 9 and we don’t know how far we can go or what lies in store for us.
My colleague Toufiq Rashid and I have barely reached the outskirts of Srinagar when a group of about 10 boys stop our car. The minute they find out we are journalists, they start punching our driver. We try and argue: we are here to understand your rage, to report on the agitation but soon realise that even 10 youth can have the mentality of a mob. Toufiq, a local Kashmiri, is reprimanded because her head is only eighty per cent covered. We manage to turn back and take a different route into Pulwama. They are not interested in speaking to the media. We are ‘Indian dogs.’
Pulwama, one of south Kashmir’s districts, resembles a graveyard. Stones are strewn all over and apart from groups of youth standing by the roadside, there are no signs of life: the shops are all closed, vehicles are off the roads; offices are shut and the fields are empty. The sharp, urgent hoots of ambulances ferrying the injured to and fro from the hospital is the only sound that breaks the silence of the journey.
We stop to talk to a group of youngsters and realise they are not far from a CRPF camp. The paramilitary men are not visible; they are hemmed in behind rolls of concertina wire. “We would like to visit a family whose son has been injured or killed,’’ we say and they point us to a house we cannot see from the road. “Will one of you come with us,’’ I ask and the reply is astounding. “I am busy,’’ says a boy, barely 14 years old. Busy? “Yes, I have to pelt stones,’’ he says in a matter-of-fact voice. Two older men on a motorcycle ask us to follow them and we make our way to Irfan’s home and join the men seated in a room next to where the women are grieving.
“I have become Burhan Wani’s follower. He is my leader,’’ says the father, Manzoor Ahmed Malik. He’s just offered prayers for his dead son but is stoic. The room is full of men hailing from different villages of south Kashmir and each has a story to share; each story is of death. The anger in the room boils over at several points. “Why is India occupying our land? Why do men in uniform, who are not even from Kashmir, walk into our homes and demand proof of our identification? We want azadi from oppression... how can you fire bullets at our young boys... each one of us is Burhan... the Indian forces have automatic weapons but they are so scared even of our mobile phones, they have cut off all connectivity.”
THE GREAT DIVIDE
Mobile connectivity is not the only problem. The Valley has been in deep despair and Burhan’s death has prised open all the wounds. Signs of communication channels between the elected representatives and the people are scant and the problem in south Kashmir has been festering for over a year. “We have known that south Kashmir, which is also the ruling party’s stronghold, has been responding more to Burhan than Mehbooba Mufti or her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed but no effort was made to arrest the drift,’’ says an intelligence officer.
The birth of Burhan Wani and the speed with which he was catapulted into a Robin hood-like figure ought to have been a moment of introspection. The 15-year-old who disappeared into the mountains ringing Tral in south Kashmir after a beating from members of the local police’s special operations group, took little time in recruiting local youth; all – according to their families – fed up with oppression and continued ‘militarisation.’
Burhan became the face of new age militants: all well-educated and tech savvy. They were the new role models as videos and Facebook posts of them went viral. They were unafraid of showing their faces or revealing their identities. “They make their names and faces known and their outreach is wide,’’ Lt Gen Satish Dua, Corps Commander, 15 Corps, had told HT in October last year, implying that social media had become a fertile recruitment ground.
The ground from under Kashmir’s feet had slipped last year when the tech-savvy new-age militants far outnumbered what security forces call ‘’foreign terrorists’’ or those who come from Pakistan.
The writing was on the wall. Successive governments have crushed mass agitations with force, like in 2010 when 116 youth were killed one after another. The answer then was to call for additional forces and the same has been repeated now. Additional troops of the army and the CRPF have been rushed in once again. Mehbooba Mufti, who single-handedly built the People’s Democratic Party by visiting homes of those killed – civilians or militants – is today a pale shadow of herself, “guilty perhaps,’’ as one of her party colleagues put it, “of sharing power with the BJP who she said in every election speech would not be allowed to take root in the Valley.”
FORCES AS ‘HUMAN SHIELDS’
The killing of Burhan Wani saw Mehbooba retreat into a shell and there was no political interface between the enraged protestors and the men in uniform who drew their ire. Once again – like in 2010, when former chief minister Omar Abdullah admits he made the mistake of not being seen or heard – the protesters clashed furiously with the ‘’occupational forces’’. This time, they did not just pelt stones, but set police stations on fire; snatched weapons from them and on July 9, the day of Burhan’s burial, the police were counting not just 96 injured but were also taking stock of missing weapons.
In DH Pura police station, in south Kashmir, the 20-odd policemen on finding themselves hopelessly outnumbered, had no choice but to call the army picket one kilometre away. Three policemen from the post went missing with their weapons while the remaining ran up a hill till the army came and rescued them. DH Pura was not the only police station to be attacked and stones were not the only ‘weapons’ being fired. A group of CRPF men fought a stone-pelting mob for three hours before a grenade was thrown at them and the injured had to be rushed to the Base Hospital in Srinagar.
Senior officials of the local police, the army and the paramilitary took immediate stock after reports trickled in that their men had opened fire against the protesters. The information coming in was worrying: the intensity of the mob was greater, in some places, than it was in 2010 and their numbers were larger. They were better prepared too, to deal with teargas attacks and had come prepared with wet towels, their faces firmly covered. Hopelessly outnumbered in many places, security personnel were in a state of nervous tension and some had opened fire on the protestors.
As one official told HT, “We knew that was bad news. Every civilian death meant another funeral; another protest. We were back to the vicious cycle of violence.’’ The seriousness of what will in future be referred to as ‘the 2016 agitation’ was evident when the Jammu and Kashmir Inspector General of Police Javed Geelani and the Additional Director General of Police (CID), SM Sahai made a fervent appeal to parents at a press conference, asking them to ensure their sons don’t join the ranks of militants.
Breaking her silence after five days, the chief minister too put the onus on parents, asking them to ensure their children don’t take to the streets. She had reports that militants had taken cover behind civilians in at least two instances to target the security forces, but cautioned against the use of ‘excessive force’. The security officers too sent a stern message down the line, reiterating the drill: do not train your guns on civilians; they are your own people.
It was already too late. Hospitals were teeming with injured civilians. Of the over 1500 injured, at least 300 had either bullet or pellet injuries. The Police Hospital in Srinagar saw 90 injured being brought in, all of who were discharged after first aid except for one who has a fractured bone in the face. The army hospital is tending to 14 injured, hit either by stones that can be lethal or by grenade splinters. Plain data too tells the story of violence: 300 civilians battling for their lives in hospital and 15 security men in medical care.
Nitin Kate, a CRPF jawan who was admitted after a splinter pierced his abdomen, says they tried to push back a large crowd for over three hours before being hit by a grenade. He has been serving in the Valley since 2009 and his training stood him in good stead. “Did you open fire?’’ I asked. His reply, “If I had opened fire I would have gone to jail. We have orders not to fire. Yes, I can hold a gun to my own head but I cannot fire at a crowd. Even human rights bodies don’t think of us. They don’t think we have rights.’’
The fact that over 30 civilians have died of bullet injuries, however, is testimony to the fact that not all are as disciplined as Nitin Kate. The casualty figure is also testimony, as one officer put it, “of the fact that we are used as human shields. If the politicians had done their job, we would not have blood on our hands.’’
That really is the crux of the problem. The Valley is – and has been – in the grip of a political vacuum, bereft of a dialogue or even of confidence-building measures aimed at the common Kashmiri.
When asked if he was guilty of not initiating innovative political measures, Omar Abdullah says, “We were unable to convince New Delhi. Unfortunately, the only time Kashmir matters to them is when it burns.”
It is on fire once again. Several of the injured civilians HT met said they will follow in Burhan’s footsteps. Even if they don’t, the deep anger and despair needs urgent attention. Security officials know that the militant ranks will grow and that they are better armed than they were a week ago, for the 50 to 70 weapons snatched from them “will be used against us, sooner rather than later,’’ as one official put it.
As New Delhi wages a diplomatic battle against Pakistan, it must realise that it has a problem at home where its own people are at war against it. The most important lesson it needs to learn is this: resolution will definitely not flow from a face-off between the Nitin Kates and Burhan’s followers. It did not, in 2010 and it will not in 2016.
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