When I read that Burhan Wani, the iconic leader of the new militancy in South Kashmir, had been killed, I should have felt at least a twinge of relief. Instead all I felt was overwhelming pity for his family and despair for my country. For his death has not brought peace nearer in Kashmir, any more than the killing of Osama bin Laden has ended the threat from Al Qaeda, or brought peace to the Middle East.
Instead, as the eruption of rage after Wani’s death shows, it has only deepened the estrangement between Kashmir and the rest of India, and brought the moment closer when, if this killing goes on, insane rage will grip the youth of that benighted paradise once more and plunge it towards its own, and perhaps India’s, destruction.
Every titbit of information that has surfaced suggests that the encounter, if not the actual killing, was choreographed. Despite the extraordinary precautions that Wani had taken to make his group in South Kashmir difficult to infiltrate, the Kashmir police had succeeded in doing so. It knew that news of his death would set Kashmir on fire, so it chose a day of the week, a time of the year and, if reports are to be believed, a time of day that would minimise the impact of his death on the people.
But these tactics did not work and Kashmir is now perceptibly closer to the tipping point than ever before. So why is the government persisting with a counter terrorism strategy that, it must know, will only make things worse?
It was not as if it had no other options. Wani was only 22 when his life ended. Although he had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen seven years ago, he had not committed any truly heinous crimes. The Kashmir police had registered four serious cases against him, two of firing upon and injuring sarpanches, and two others of firing upon the police and the Rashtriya Rifles.
None of these had resulted in a death. So why was it so necessary to kill him? Why was no attempt ever made to persuade him to give up violence and pursue his goals peacefully? That is what governor Girish Chandra Saxena’s administration had succeeded in doing with Yasin Malik, Shabbir Shah and the militants of the 1990s. Why did no one even try?
The answer is that in the early ‘90s it was the militants who were on the offensive. The Indian state had resorted to violence with reluctance. Apart from defending themselves, the security forces used force mainly to protect civilians involved in the administration of the state, political cadres of mainstream parties and government buildings and facilities. Force was also used to underline the futility of challenging the writ of the state, but the goal was always to use a mixture of force and persuasion to make the separatists eschew violence in favour of negotiation and accommodation.
This strategy came close to success in 2002 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee rammed through a free and fair election over the strenuous objections of then Kashmir chief minister, Farooq Abdullah, facilitated the formation of a government that the Kashmiris did not consider a tool of New Delhi and launched a visionary initiative to settle the Kashmir dispute with President Musharraf of Pakistan.
The process continued with Manmohan Singh and a high point was April 5, 2005 when the first buses between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad crossed the Jhelum at Kaman post on the cease-fire line after a lapse of 40 years. Men, women and children lined the road to Srinagar dressed in their best clothes and greeted the bus form Muzaffarabad with flowers and song. It was a spontaneous outpouring of joy, such as Kashmir had not witnessed in a quarter of a century.
But the healing process that began then ended abruptly with the UPA government’s crackdown and return to police raj after the Amarnath land scam, and the BJP’s blockade of the Srinagar-Jammu highway in 2008.
That ‘crackdown’ began the return to the nightmare days of the early ‘90s. When, inspite of it, there was an unexpectedly high turnout in the valley in the December 2008 elections, Delhi seized this to claim that militancy had ended; all that was left to do was mop up its remnants and seal the border to keep infiltrators out of the valley.
That unfortunate boast ended Delhi’s dialogue with the Hurriyat. Throughout his second term in office, Manmohan Singh did not meet its leaders even once. This left capturing or killing ‘terrorists’ the only way to mop up the disaffection that remained. The task was delegated to the Kashmir police.
The resurgence of militancy today can be traced back directly to this self-serving deceit. To obtain information the police use the only methods it is familiar with: round up all known suspects and apply third degree methods to sweat information out of them. In the last six years this has turned the Kashmir police into a terror machine.
Loss of civic rights
All those who get onto its charge sheets, be it as a militant, a stone pelter or an agitator, immediately lose their civic rights. From then on they are liable to be summoned to the police station at any time of the day or night and insulted, humiliated, tortured or beaten up, at the will of the station house officer. This has turned life into an uncertain hell not only for them but also their families, who face suspicion and ostracism once they begin to receive visits from the police.
One way out is to become an informer. The other is to become a militant. Wani chose the latter. There was nothing in his family background that had predisposed him to rebellion. His father was the principal of a secondary school, his elder brother had been studying for his PhD in economics when he was killed by the police last year. Burhan was 15 when he and his brother were stopped, abused and humiliated by the police while on a joyride with a friend who was testing out a new motorcycle. Whatever happened then was sufficiently humiliating to turn him into a militant and bring him onto the police’s history sheets.
By the time he was killed, Wani had become the single most potent threat to the Indian state in Kashmir. But the threat he posed was ideological. By the yardsticks of the ’90s, his movement was still tiny and the wounds it had inflicted on the Indian state were no more than pinpricks. What made him a threat was his capacity to inspire. For there was a ‘purity’ in his revolt that the movements of the ‘90s had lost long ago. He had never crossed the border into Pakistan; he was not motivated by religious ideology, he did not want to join Pakistan and he was not in anyone’s pay. His was an apolitical revolt born out of pure rejection: he represented a Kashmiri nationalism that simply wanted to cut its links with India and become free to be itself.
But it was precisely these qualities that made it worth the government’s while to open a channel of communication with him with a view to restarting the search for a political settlement. Killing him was therefore the most self defeating thing the Indian state could have done.
If the government does not want Kashmir to spin out of control once more, it must stop the killing now. The first step would be to declare a unilateral cease-fire, wipe the police’s history sheets clean and give all those on it a respite from fear. The second would be to give full support to chief minister Mehbooba Mufti in her efforts to heal the wounds inflicted on the Kashmiri psyche. The third would be to equip the police to deal with stone pelters and others without using lethal force, inspite of every provocation to do so.
Only if these steps bring back peace will the government be able to look for ways to bring Kashmiri nationalists back to the negotiating table once more. The door to this room has been shut for so long that there is no way of knowing whether it can be opened again. But that does not exempt the government from the need to try.