Kasmir Valley Unplugged Again

August 4, 2016 Author: Vishwagujarat

If imposing military authority was a prerequisite for bringing peace to a region, then Kashmir would have been the shining example of its success. Sadly, it isn’t.

Kashmir is the most highly militarised zone in the world with an extensive surveillance system in place. One may argue that the presence of more than seven lakh soldiers with a ratio of one soldier for every 10 civilians, roughly, is justified because there is a consistent threat of cross-border insurgency from neighbouring Pakistan. But is it also justifiable that military, paramilitary and police forces be used to cow down a people in the name of bringing peace to the valley?

The death of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen Commander and a poster boy of new militancy in Kashmir, has once again thrown Kashmir into a vicious cycle of violence with protesters clashing with police and security forces.

In the past 14 days, 50 civilians have lost their lives and counting in the ensuing violence. As many as 2943 civilians got injured. Around 100 civilians injured have lost their eyesight due to pellet injury. This is not the first time that Kashmir has seen such a mass uprising. Since 1990, when the first armed revolt broke out in the Valley, the border State has witnessed massive, relatively non-violent agitations in 2008, and again in 2010 in which 200 people lost their lives in clashes with the forces.

The ‘Kashmir issue’ is an offshoot of the 1947 Partition between India and Pakistan. The oldest unresolved dispute in the world has already consumed one lakh lives, with well over a lakh left widowed and orphaned.

The aftermath of July 8, during which people in large numbers came out on the streets in support of Wani -- who many believe was fighting for the cause of their political aspirations -- is not a new phenomenon in Kashmir. Mass gatherings at the funeral of militants is a common sight in the valley. However, over the years as the space for dissent has shrunk, funerals and religious processions have reinvented themselves as an outlet for suppressed voices.

Attending the funeral of a militant has now become an act of defiance against the Indian establishment that is being seen as both distant and repressive. And as the curbs and restrictions harden, slogans demanding “Azadi” grow louder at such funerals.

Security Lapse

Being aware of the ground reality (the least that can be expected in a region that is so monitored), why did authorities not have a contingency plan in place to counter the situation before they decided to eliminate the A++ CATEGORY Hizb-ul Commander. Could this loss of lives been avoided had the Government taken certain precautionary measures?

A police official wishing not to be named tells Policy Pulse that Government agencies underestimated the consequences that Burhan’s death could lead to.

“We were aware that in South Kashmir – hometown of Burhan – there will be some unrest. But we never thought that the killing of him will ignite the entire Kashmir,” the official says.

After gauging the mood, soon after the news of the Burhan’s death broke, the authorities imposed a curfew in all the 10 districts of Kashmir. But this didn’t deter people from coming out from their homes to engage in fierce stone-pelting targeting the security forces.

“What can you do when a mob comes out on the streets. We tried our best to contain them. But there comes a point when the situation gets out of control and it’s only then we are compelled to open fire on the crowd as our last resort,” the official adds.

Over the past two weeks, security forces have been facing increasingly hostile crowds. The mobs attacked at least 10 police stations, burned down scores of Government buildings, and threw a policeman into a river along with his vehicle. As many as 249 police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel have been injured in the clashes.

Conspiracy Theory

Senior People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader and Member of Parliament Muzaffar Hussain Baig alleged that the killing of Burhan Wani was a deliberate attempt to destabilise Kashmir so that the newly formed Government can be toppled.

Baig said instead of killing Wani it would have been better to apprehend him so that current situation did not have arisen.

“There are some senior officials in the police department who are working at the behest of others who are keen to topple this Government,” Baig said, without naming anyone.

He also questioned whether the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) was actually followed during the operation in which Wani and his two associates were killed.

Local media reports which allege that Wani’s encounter may have been stage-managed by the security forces act as a supplement to Baig’s insinuations.

Speaking to the media, Baig demanded a probe into Wani’s killing. He questioned the methodology of the encounter, which he alleged was in violation of a Supreme Court ruling. In an operation that is supposed to have ended in three-and-a-half minutes, the militants were not given a warning and asked to surrender, said Baig, alleging a violation of the apex court guidelines.

Interestingly, despite being the Home Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said that she had no knowledge of the operation in which Wani was shot.

In her first televised address since violence erupted, Mufti said that she was only informed about Wani’s death after the operation was over and she immediately gave orders to impose curfew in the Valley to maintain law and order.

Challenge for Mehbooba Mufti

Mehbooba Mufti had proven herself to be a great rabble rouser in the streets and villages. During the peak of militancy in the State in the 1990s, she was the only mainstream political leader who used to visit the most volatile areas to connect with people. She also made it a point to visit families of alleged militants and separatists believed to have been killed by security forces.

This outreach, besides establishing her presence among the local populace, also resulted in her being in the good books of separatist leaders. However, she has come a long way since then and, with the seeds of alienation taking root, Mehbooba is facing the toughest challenge of her political career.

Already on the back foot after stitching an alliance with BJP, it will be a herculean task for Mehbooba to keep her pro-people image intact. The much-touted ‘healing touch policy’ seems to be falling apart within three months of Mehbooba taking over as Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister.

“I think the way Omar Abdullah Government fell in 2010 though it continued till 2014, Mehbooba Mufti's Government has already fallen. She may still continue to govern the State, but both morally and politically the Government is already over,” says Faisul Yaseen, Political Editor of Rising Kashmir.

Yaseen says it is only a matter of time before Mehbooba’s party falls. “I don’t see her party winning next elections because PDP's bastion (South Kashmir) is worst hit,” he says.

It was only after the death of 49 people that Mehbooba visited some of the families of the victims killed in firing. However, no MLAs of her party have visited their constituencies. The situation on the ground continues to play out between the people and the armed forces only.

Controversies such as gagging the local newspapers and then, after three days, coming up with a bizarre statement which claimed she was not aware of the happenings have stamped another big question mark on Mehbooba’s capability to run the State in difficult times.

Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah tweeted, “I learnt from my mistakes in 2010, ensured they weren’t repeated again. Mehbooba Mufti has not only repeated them but multiplied them many times.”

Things to ponder

The people of Kashmir were once promised their right to self-determination via a referendum but it remains highly unlikely that either India or Pakistan will agree to such a move.

Coming back to the issue at hand, while the intricacies of the conflict are up for debate, one thing which needs to be pondered upon is: Does the removal of life and liberty constitute a democratic means of solving any conflict? Is India pushing the ordinary Kashmiri further away by imposing draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) which give complete impunity to security forces?

Kashmir has, over the years, seen a disproportionate use of force against civilians by armed forces. Yet, despite millions being spent on security forces in the State from every year’s budget, the Centre and State governments have been unable to handle law and order situations adequately.

Commentator and political analyst Gowhar Geelani suggests that there is a huge gap between the mindset in New Delhi and Kashmir. “When India claims that Kashmir is its ‘integral part’ it basically talks about the territory, not the people. New Delhi and Srinagar have drifted further apart, especially since 1989. Kashmiris have a political aspiration and India has tried every dirty trick to criminalise and delegitimise that genuine aspiration,” Geelani says.

Geelani adds that India’s approach to Kashmir is that of fire-fighting.

“Whenever Kashmir is on the boil, it para-drops its conflict managers in Srinagar with an aim to douse the flames, but refuses to acknowledge that the problem has deeper political nature. New Delhi’s denial mode has forced Kashmiris to hate the very idea of India.

“To find a durable solution to Kashmir issue, New Delhi has to take the lead in initiating dialogue with the Hurriyat and militant leadership as both represent the political aspiration in different ways. Economic doles and electoral processes have not resolved the problem and will not do so in the future, as is evident from last 68 years,” he says.

The Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander who was shot gives a reflection of the failure of the State’s law and order mechanism as well as that of the Central administrative and security machinery in Kashmir. Geelani’s opinions may leave room for debate, but, howsoever it chooses to do it, New Delhi needs to engage with people of Kashmir rather than push them against the wall. There is a need for an interaction on political issues.

In the 2014 Assembly elections people in large numbers turned out at the polling booths to elect a new Government. The large turnout could have been a sign of people wanting to improve the administrative structure in the State, but some pundits in New Delhi were quick to portray it as evidence of the fact that the people of the State of Jammu and Kashmir wanted to be a part of India. This theory may hold true for voters in Jammu and Ladakh but its applicability to Kashmir would necessitate a closer examination of what people in the State want. But, regrettably, jumping the gun, over-simplifications and generalisations when it comes to analysing Kashmir have become journalistic commonalities.

Then, the elections threw up a fractured mandate and brought the unlikely combination of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to form the Government. A sense of disenchantment which had already set in after the hanging of Afzal Guru (who was hanged for his alleged role in the 2001 Parliament attack) was felt to have deepened among average Kashmiris.

The only noticeable results of the PDP-BJP alliance have been the humiliation of the people, the denigration of the State's special status, newly spawned or resurrected concepts in the State such as Sainik Colonies, separate townships for Kashmiri Pandits, the beef ban row and the reneging of one promise after another by PDP.

People of Kashmir, especially the youth, started to feel more insecure in their own State. And when a group of educated youth turned to militancy and urged others to join them by utilising the platforms available via social networks, it revitalised an old path that Kashmiris had abandoned in the hope for a peaceful resolution of the political stalemate.

Yes, unemployment might be one of the factors egging on youth to turn towards the path of violence but the deep sense of anger against the State is the manifestation of the people’s urge to finally see a resolution of the Kashmir issue.

It is pertinent to mention, that when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee initiated the peace talks with Pakistan as well as pro-freedom leadership, Kashmir witnessed a period of relative calm. But today there is not only a complete absence of political engagement in the valley but also a sense that the Central Government is in denial over the fact that Kashmir is, indeed, an issue.