For the first time since 1990, the anger in Kashmir and support for azadi from India is stretched across society in the Valley.
Srinagar airport felt normal when eight of us – journalists and social activists – arrived on August 18. Planes were flying into the airport every hour from different parts of India. Bags came onto the conveyor belts with commendable speed and taxi drivers were waiting outside the exit to solicit passengers.
But the normalcy was deceptive. My return ticket to Srinagar had cost me only Rs 6,000 when it should have cost three times as much in this season. My flight to Srinagar was more than half empty. The return flight was full because it was ferrying paramilitary personnel out of the Valley after Independence Day.
The hotel we stayed in at Dalgate was utterly empty. The restaurant was serving only rice, chapattis, daal and dum aloo because these were the only food items in stock. A heightened curfew had prevented villagers from bringing fresh vegetables to clandestine markets that had sprung up to circumvent it.
The serried ranks of houseboats across the narrow strip of water at Dalgate were starkly empty. Not a single light even betrayed their presence at night. The shikaras that serviced them remained moored along the boulevard from sunrise till sunset, their disconsolate owners not even looking up to solicit a potential customer. Dal lake had regained the serene tranquility one sees in British watercolours of the 19th century. So still were its waters that even the miasma of rotten eggs, stirred by motorboats and shikaras in normal times, was absent .
We got our first taste of the rage that is boiling within Kashmir when we tried to visit some of the victims of the police firing, especially of the use of pellet guns, at the SMHS hospital in the city. The corridors of the hospital were crowded with relatives of the injured in varying degrees of grief and pain. Although the doctors attending to the patients were keen to meet us, our way was barred by a wall of bearded young men in their twenties who began pushing us back physically from the entrance to the wards, shouting, “Azadi, azadi, go back to India, go back, we do not want you here”. Their rage and hate was like a physical presence: their bearded faces were suffused with blood and their eyes were devoid of the humanity that we only notice when it is absent.
When the doctors who had come out to meet us entreated them to let us in, and other older men present counselled restraint, they began to shout: “Who sent you here, which agency do you belong to?” When we said we were journalists and civil society workers who had not been sent by any newspaper or TV channel and had come on our own to understand and report the sentiments of Kashmiris, they remained unmoved. “Your media are lying day in and day out. We see them everyday. We know what they say and how they misrepresent us.” They eventually let some of us in, but barred Mani Shankar Aiyar on the grounds that he was a politician.
Our second experience of the anger occurred a few hours later on the same day. We were told that despite the curfew, we would be able to reach Kashmir University by going around Dal lake as there were no police barriers on the foreshore road. We were misinformed. There was a barrier, but it was one erected by the stone pelters. We had, however, learned from our experience at the SMHS, so the most courageous amongst us walked up to them, explained who we were and why we were here, and reminded them that we were guests in their country. So they let us through.
But while crossing the barrier I saw the boys who were in charge. One looked about 12 years old and the other, who was clearly his leader, was around 16 and doing his best to grow a beard. I was reminded of the child soldiers of sub-Saharan Africa whom I had seen on BBC. There was not a spark of humanity on his face.
Not “unrest” but an uprising
These encounters and a series of discussions over the next three days enabled us to understand the mosaic of sentiments in the Valley today. I have been coming to the Valley since the first outbreak of armed revolt 26 years ago, but have never before witnessed such a unanimity of sentiment. The very air of the Valley is suffused with a profound anger directed against the Modi government for its utterly heartless treatment of Kashmir, its betrayal of its commitments to Kashmiris, be it Mufti Sayeed over the Agenda for Alliance or the flood victims of 2014, its systematic persecution of Muslims in India and its single-minded determination to depict each and every manifestation of discontent in Kashmir as terrorism and crush it with brute force.
The anger is particularly virulent towards the Indian media. In 1990, the militants treated Indian and foreign journalists as allies who would carry their message to the larger Indian public and the world. Today they consider the Indian media to be their enemies, particularly TV channels.
They have given up on India ever giving them a chance to govern themselves even to the extent that other states of the Union do, let alone enjoy the autonomy that was promised to them in Article 370 in the constitution. “Modi wants our land, not us,” we heard over and over again. “That is why we have opted en masse for azadi.”
What India is facing is not, therefore, another bout of unrest to be managed and then forgotten, but an uprising. The last such upsurge had followed the Gowkadal massacre of January 1990, when the Kashmir police had opened fire on a large, unarmed procession from both ends of a street, killing between 24 and 55 unarmed civilians. This had instantly converted what had till then been a simmering revolt into a general uprising.
But the current uprising is far more deeply imbedded and pervasive. In 1990, the mainstream parties were strongly entrenched in the Valley. Not only were their cadres against the uprising, but they became its first victims, because breaking their hold on villages was one of the first diktats the new generation of rebels received from their arms suppliers in Pakistan. This made them unpopular with large sections of the urban and rural population.
Second, in 1990 it was the insurgents who picked up the gun and killed first, crossing a strong red line in Kashmiri society. As I had occasion to see personally, this forced many of their leaders to face strong disapproval from their own families.
Third, the 1990s militants selectively killed prominent Kashmiri Pandits in order to drive them out of the Valley. This created a profound unease, amounting to distress, that is very much in evidence in the older generation of Kashmiri Muslims even today.
Support for the militancy therefore began to wane within months of the start of the uprising. This became evident by the middle of 1992, when the Hizbul Mujahideen was forcing families to choose between donating a lakh rupees – a vast sum in those days – or one son to the cause of Islam. It was this near-universal disapproval, and not any spectacular successes of the Indian army, that brought the first Kashmiri ‘intifada’ to an end in 1995.
As Firdaus Ahmad Baba alias Babar Badr, former head of the Muslim Janbaz Force, wrote many years later “After the first few years of militancy, by 1992-93 or so, I had come to realise the futility and destructiveness of armed struggle as a means to achieve our ends in Kashmir. I had also seen through Pakistan’s game, which was to exploit us for its own ends. Once clear about both these issues I decided to come overground. This was in 1996. This single step, I was soon to realise, would alienate me from everybody in Kashmir. I was suddenly a pariah, even in my own family. Now everyone – my family, my friends, my comrades-in-arms – felt that I was a traitor to the cause. I was completely alone. But there was no going back to the path which, I knew, would lead only to the destruction of our whole society and everything we Kashmiris held dear; our very identity was under threat.”
This time, however, there is a wall of support for the basic demand of azadi from India that stretches across every stratum of Kashmiri society. In meeting after meeting, our interlocutors pointed out that unlike the upsurge after the Amarnath land scam in 2008 and the Macchhil fake encounter killings by the army in 2010, this time there is no specific demand for justice, punishment or restitution embedded inside the upsurge of stone pelting or the calls for azadi. University professors, lawyers, hoteliers, houseboat and shikara owners, traders, manufacturers, former militants and even militant leaders who had surrendered voluntarily in the ‘90s are now determined to see the uprising through till its end.
The burden of their song is the same: “Our schools and colleges are closed and our children have lost another year; our businesses are ruined and we don’t know how to pay back our loans; we are short of food, of medicines, of fuel, but this time we are going to support the boys to the bitter end. For as long as India rules Kashmir through the gun and the security forces alone, the killing and the upsurges of anger and violence will continue and we will face ruin again and again.”
“It happened to us in 2008 because of the Amarnath land scam; in 2009 because of the Shopian double rape and murder agitation; in 2010 because of the Macchil fake encounter killings. It has happened again after your forces killed Burhan Wani. This has to end. So we will let the boys take the lead.”
The apple growers of Kashmir have said that they would prefer to let their apple crop rot rather than break the uprising. The All Kashmir Traders and Manufacturers association, whose members have a normal turnover of Rs 650 to 750 crores a day at the height of the summer, have resigned themselves to doing so too. “All we ask of them is that this time they finish what they have started.”
A second recurring theme is the older generation’s loss of control over the youth. “Today’s militants,” professors at Kashmir University told us, “are not even in their late ‘teens or early ‘twenties. They are 12 to 16 years of age. We could have engaged with them, as we do regularly with our students, if they had been older, but we have no way of reaching this age group.”
Among these new warriors there is an ecstasy in confrontation that borders on a love affair with death. “We do not fear death! Muslims don’t fear it because Islam gives us strength. We all want jannat (paradise) that awaits the shaheed (martyr),” Javaid a 19-or-so leader of the stone pelters told Aarti Tikoo of the Times of India last month. The sudden silence in the room after he said this was broken by his mother. “Yes, he’s not scared of death.” “What’s there to be frightened of?” his sisters chimed in.
Last week, Shujaat Bukhari, editor of Rising Kashmir, reported an encounter with “the boys” of an elderly couple from Handwara whom he knew. While on their way to their village, a group of 15 boys stopped them on the road. When the gentleman told them they were on their way to Haj, they asked him to ask Allah for a dua on their behalf. “Ask him to give us the blessing of martyrdom.”
Similar stories pepper the newspapers every other day: a four-year-old boy slaps his father for trying to open his shop despite the call for hartal; a 12 or 13-year-old boy tells his mother that if she does not let him join the stone pelters he will kill her and then join the stone pelters to martyr himself, and so on. It does not matter whether these are true or apocryphal: in the present atmosphere they are being believed. What is being built up steadily is a cult of martyrdom that will require the shedding of rivers of blood to contain.
What the government of India is facing, therefore, is not terrorism or a proxy war by Pakistan. Elements of both are present within it. R&AW estimates that Pakistan has spent Rs 300 crores in the past year or more, encouraging militancy in Kashmir. But no amount of money or exhortation could have made 1.5 lakh people from all over South Kashmir rush to Tral within hours of Wani’s death to catch a last glimpse of him and offer no fewer than 40 prayers for his soul. And Pakistan did not even learn of Wani’s death, let alone instigate it, before the people of South Kashmir.
Beneath the current unanimity lies an all-pervasive, monumental anger at betrayal. Zafar Manas of the Peoples Democratic Party expressed this with precision: Kashmiris had backed Sheikh Abdullah when he opted to join India in 1947. “Even after you put him in jail he continued to exert his influence and did not allow Kashmir to become a pawn of Pakistan.”
“In 1965, no Kashmiris joined the infiltrators from Pakistan … In 1992 we said that you cannot create a state based on religion. Pakistan offers nothing to us … But despite this you did nothing. For 70 years we rejected the two-nation theory. You were our protectors. But in these 70 years all you did was to wrest powers away from us. You took away, you did not give. Why did you forsake us?”
Baba gave us his answer: “Your problem is not with Kashmir, it is with yourselves. Slowly, bit by bit, you are becoming a fascist country and the Muslims are your Jews. This is steadily closing the gray space (between independence and subservience) in which we can reside. If you don’t set your own house in order, the India you know, and have been trying to build, will not survive … Today all Kashmiris are of one mind – we want to be free of India. Our differences are about means … (If you want us to stay with you) you have to create the political space for us to express ourselves.”
The final issue on which there was complete unanimity was that no matter whether they were were Sufi-Hanafis, Jamaatis or Ahl-e Hadis, Kashmiris did not want to join Pakistan. When we raised this question at Kashmir University, one of the speakers reminded us that a recent Chatham House opinion poll in Kashmir had shown that only 15% wanted to join Pakistan against 23% who wanted to remain with India. Earlier polls had put the pro-Pakistan segment at 5%. (The MORI poll in 2004 had put the figure at 6% in all of Jammu and Kashmir). The vast majority wanted azadi – regardless of whether one defined it as independence, autonomy or self- government.
When Tikoo reminded Javaid that martyrdom for Islam was originally a Shia ideal and had been brought into Sunni Islam by the Wahabis, and asked him whether he had become a Wahabi, he was genuinely non-plussed: “We go to shrines. Our Islam was brought by Shah-i-Hamdan to Kashmir 700 years ago. We want to save our Islam. Don’t get me wrong, we love the Muslim world especially Pakistan because of our Islamic bond with them. It’s the same blood after all! But we want to be independent and not with Pakistan.”