If the Past Year in Kashmir is Any Indication, Delhi Must Brace Itself for Worse in 2019

For Kashmiris, nothing is forgotten. The depredations of military control aren’t routine newspaper headlines but form a lived experience that continues to exert influence and shape their political imagination.

There are plenty of things in 2018 that happened in Kashmir for the first time in nearly decades. Consider these.

For the first time since 2008, the number of people who died due to conflict breached the 500 ceiling. The number of listed militants with government agencies crossed 300 – the highest in a decade. In 2013, the  year before Narendra Modi was elected to power, the number was just 78.

For the first time in 17 years, cordon and search operations returned to the summer capital Srinagar, a city that was declared militancy free in 2005. Anantnag town in south Kashmir recorded its first fierce gunfight between the security forces and militants since 2005. Around 200 youth – aged between 12-25 years – joined various insurgent groups, the highest in more than a decade. For the first time in eight years, governor’s rule was imposed and for the first time in 22 years, President’s rule was promulgated in Jammu and Kashmir.

This list might read like a prosaic account of the worsening political and security scenario in Kashmir but it points to a new, bleaker aspect of conflict that threatens to spiral beyond control.

The political situation in the Valley has deteriorated irretrievably, and given how the Indian state has dealt with the resulting turmoil, Kashmir is destined to have another bloody year. A clear reading of 2018 will demonstrate that layer upon layer of resentment and anguish has piled up and that public sentiment is now nearly implacable. The sense of anger, hopelessness and despair is more discernible than ever. 

For Kashmiris, nothing is forgotten. The depredations of military control aren’t routine newspaper headlines but form a lived experience that continues to exert influence and shape their political imagination. The daily bloodshed may muddy our thoughts for a while but to reality has never been more transparent.

In 2018, no death, in a long compendium of departees, was reeled off in inattention. Rather each name, the manner in which the incident unfolded and the gory violence associated with it was engraved into minds, reaffirming to Kashmiris the language of war coded into the very nature of the Indian state’s rule in Kashmir.

Also read: Militant Recruitment Data in 2018 Is Telling of the Centre’s Failed Strategies in J&K

So when Mushtaq Ahmad Thakur (36) of Dragad-Sugan village in South Kashmir was prodded by soldiers with a gun on April 1 and made to take the lead in a gunfight where civilians are meant to be first evacuated, his family did not let go of this memory. They remember very well as do the rest of the villagers that Thakur died as a human shield.

So did the relatives of Aadil Yadoo, who was deliberately run over by a paramilitary vehicle and killed on May 4. The J&K police might have claimed “he died…due…to a road accident” but that did not deter some watchful fellow residents who caught the scene on a mobile phone from releasing dramatic footage of a police van accelerating and mowing down a young man who succumbed to his injuries later. 2018 was replete with such incidents.

There was Hiba Jan, an 18 month old toddler and her pellet-ridden eyes. Then there was Abdul Gani Poswal, a doctor at the district hospital Pulwama, who hastened to save injured protesters on June 29 but who was moved to tears to see his son among the dead.

Thousands marched for Irshad Majeed Lone (20) of Havoora Kulgam, whom the army shot in the abdomen on July 7. His brother Zahid was shot too; first in the left leg and then three more times in the right before dragging him through the paddy fields. Irshad died while Shakir Khanday (20) and Andleeb (16)  succumbed to the army’s targeted firing on the same day, same place.

They were not trying to “disrupt” an encounter but resisting the humiliating cordon and search operations that involve vandalism, coercion, death and even sexual violence.  A 19-year-old scrap dealer from Kulgam died three miles from the encounter site and no one could explain why. An ageing Mohammad Ishaq Naikoo couldn’t survive a cardiac arrest when false news that his militant son was caught in an encounter was broken to him.

Also read: Why Educated Kashmiri Youth Continue to Join Militancy

These stories no longer just lurk in backdrop of the daily lives of Kashmiris but occupy an outsized position in their mindscape as a constant and painful reminder. It steels their resolve and determination. And when their emotion cannot come out in a coherent, clear-headed way, it festers into irrepressible anger, morphs into unrecognisable forms and sometimes prompts Kashmiris towards self-hurt – a shortcoming which, though natural to trauma-ridden people, can also be manipulated and deployed to forge a consensus against them.

The year of carnage

Kashmir witnessed multiple big encounters in 2018, many of which later snowballed into full-blown carnage. Every gunfight and the bloodshed that accompanied it were eclipsed only by a bigger one that followed. What was common, however, was the scale of loss in terms of life.

The bloodiest gunfight of 2018 took place on April 1, which also happened to be most influential in terms of supplying new recruits to militant groups. Three different encounters in Shopian led to the death of 13 militants, four civilians and three troopers. The fallout of the Shopian carnage was so powerful that in a matter of days, close to 35 young boys had signed up to militancy, in contrast to just 30 that had joined since January 1.

Outside Kashmir, the encounter may have been celebrated as a victory, but to Kashmiris, it became, naturally, a source of humiliation. The immediate aftermath was felt in short notice when ten days later another gunfight erupted in Kudwani not far from Shopian. This time, a tide of young men, children and women barrelled right into the encounter scene, forcing the police to unravel their cordon –  which helped the militants flee. It was first time such a thing was happening but not the last.

Relatives of a youth killed in a Shopian encounter. Credit: Reuters

Relatives of a young man killed in a Shopian encounter. Credit: Reuters

In 2018, such disruptions – where civilians thrust themselves into the military crosshairs, enabling militants to escape – occurred thrice. The security forces shot four civilians dead during the Khudwani operation, setting the stage for a bloody year. Twenty days later, when the army laid siege on Turkawangam village in Shopian, villagers came to the “rescue” again. Militants would escape here too and among the absconders was Zeenat ul Islam, a top Hizbul Mujahideen militant who had also escaped during the April 1 gunfight. It was by now clear to the authorities. Having started the year on a seismic note, the following months were, by no means, going to be, agreeable.

Also read: Lessons for Narendra Modi from the History of Jammu and Kashmir

The valley witnessed a spate of gunfights after that. In many cases, retaliation quickly followed and every next incident promised a sharp escalation in violence. Matters came to head two days later when government forces succeeded in killing five militants – two of them very influential: Mohammad Rafi Bhat, a professor at Kashmir University and Saddam Paddar.

Bhat became an object of reverence. Here was an educated person who held a doctorate, who left a promising job as a professor to become a militant. He immediately became the face on to which Kashmiris could project their anxiety, hopes and promises. Human being first, then a Muslim,” his Facebook status read.

In the meantime, violence also reached Srinagar, previously thought out of bounds for militants. It was perhaps in this backdrop that Mehbooba Mufti, then chief minister, urged a ceasefire. Her plea was honoured on May 16, but instead of forging peace, it turned out to be more violent month.

The intensity of attacks, which for the most part had been defensive and retaliatory in nature, suddenly escalated sharply. The Lashkar-e-Tayyaba rejected the ceasefire. The first few days did not witness any heightened activity but only after the army in Dred Kalipora in Shopian attempted to thrust an Iftaar party on villagers did matters go worse.

When villagers rejected the army’s offer as a “photo op”, the argument turned into a fight before soldiers pulled out their weapons and fired. Two girls, one of them a minor, were shot. The army may have stopped authorising attacks on militants, but the police and paramilitary stepped up midnight detentions of young boys suspected to be behind protests.

Militant groups later cited these incidents as reason for not honouring the ceasefire, even though they had violated it on the very day it was announced. Some days later, violent protests rocked the Jamia Masjid. Fifty, including women worshipers, were injured as pellets drew blood inside the mosque.

Behind the smokescreen of the ceasefire, hostilities actually persevered. Two days later, militants struck again in Kakapora, Pulwama handing the military their first casualty even as a ceasefire was in place. As Ramzan wound its way down, it turned out not only was there was a staggering 265 % jump in militant attacks during the ceasefire, violence across the Valley too escalated.

Shujaat Bukhari’s assassination came just after after a UN body released its first ever comprehensive report on Kashmir detailing the extent of abuse being committed by the security forces.

Former vice president Hamid Ansari at the memorial for Shujaat Bukhari at the India islamic Cultural Centre in New Delhi on July 25, 2018. Credit: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

If the opprobrium caused by this indictment was not enough, the UN report delivered a stinging broadside: India must ‘fully respect the rights of Kashmiris to self-determination as protected under international law’.

This is probably the first time a UN body has unequivocally supported the demand for a referendum, sidestepping the verities of historical Indo-Pak acrimony and the chequered history of the proposal, while foregrounding the people’s experience as a basis to understand the nature of dispute.

Also read: The Army Has Bared Its Iron Fist in Kashmir – and Wants Everyone to Know It

When the government withdrew ceasefire, attacks continued to escalate. Ultimately, citing the spiralling security situation, the BJP pulled the plug on its alliance with the PDP, which paved way for Central rule in J&K for the fourth time and governor’s rule for the eighth. Curiously, the withdrawal of support was timed well – so that state doesn’t go to the polls before the Lok Sabha elections due by April-May 2019.

Central rule did did not end the BJP’s engagement with the state. The Centre soon appointed Satya Pal Malik as governor of J&K. Malik turned out to be a consummate loyalist willing to pay second-fiddle to the party.

In November, the assembly was in suspended animation when Sajad Lone tried to forge a ‘third front’ to stake claim to form the government, envisioning himself as a prospective CM. In a dramatic move, the NC, PDP and Congress closed their differences and joined hands to wrongfoot Lone. To stem such a possibility, Malik dissolved the assembly.

But he ended up exposing more than he could salvage – the reality that under the gilded frame of ‘democracy’ lies the strings  of manipulative control. In doing so, he also ended up attacking the one argument that the Indian state has used internationally to fight off questions about its jurisdiction over Kashmir: that electoral democracy itself is the expression of Kashmiri self-determination.

Militancy scenario

With the highest recruitment ever, the highest number of militants killed and the most large scale encounters that resulted in massive civilian casualties in a decade, militancy took its worse turn in 2018. It also expanded significantly into Srinagar and North Kashmir.

But by some quirk of fate, it also drastically declined during the year’s concluding months. The decline may have begun with the spate of encounters starting September 13. The first one took place in Handwara, where a teenager, Furqan Ahmad, who had joined militancy only four months earlier, and his associate Liyaqat Lone, were killed. Their funerals drew a massive turnout.

In the following days, the army dealt a sledge-hammer blow to the insurgent groups, killing some 47 militants in just 50 days, including top LeT commanders such as Asif Malik and Abu Maaz. It was during the same period that Manan Wani, the PhD scholar who studied in AMU and who was also an influential moderating voice, was also killed.

Manan Wani. Credit: YouTube screengrab

Around 17 protesters too were shot dead in firing. The last straw proved to be the deaths of two influential militants – Idrees Sultan, an army deserter, and Aamir Rather. This encounter, which took place in Safangri, Shopian seems to have pushed the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen to take an extreme step. Faced with an existential threat that was devouring them with a gathering force, the group’s militants started abducting civilians accused of tipping the army off about them.

Police reports about the presence of an “overarching” intelligence network streamed into press. A recipe for civil war was now ready. Militants released dramatic execution videos to elicit some form of deterrence.

In one video, they shot a flurry of bullets at Nadeem Farooq of Safnagri, Shopian and in another, teenager Huzaif Ahmad of Mangzam bled to death as his executioner ran a knife across his throat, his voice heavy with Punjabi inflection, suggesting Pakistani origins.

Both videos did not produce the desired effect. The attempt, on the contrary, backfired. The savagery anguished many villagers. The police now received more intelligence about militants than it ever had and that was firmly reflected during the days that followed.

The army would kill almost 27 militants in just ten days, finishing off almost all the top local leaders of the Hizb, al Badr and LeT. Among the dead were Azad Malik, Firdaus Ahmad, Anees Shafi, Omer Majid Ganai, Abass Bhat, Waseem Wagay and Khalid Farooq – all top district commanders, Shakir Dar, a key aide of Zakir Musa and architect of this IS inspired Ansar-ul Ghazwat-ul Hind, Naveed Jutt, one of the LeT militants believed to be behind Shujaat Bukhari’s assassination, Adnan Lone and Aadil Bhatt, both key aides to Riyaz Naikoo. The slain men also include the executioners of Nadeem and Huzaif, who were killed under the pretext of being ‘informers.’

But these episodes revealed just how hollow is the security threat these militants actually pose, as acknowledged by J&K police itself, which sees them more as a “political and social challenge”. They are also vulnerable, fighting a defensive war for the most part and running away rather than pursuing. Hardly any of the slain young militants survived for long.

Rather than as fighters, they become powerful symbols after their death: miles upon miles of corteges crawl across villages before these men are interred into their graves. The state might see them as merely names struck off their hit lists, but to their own people, they are faces with whom they associate in kindred spirit. It is through them that Kashmiris humanise their struggle and see it as part of a moral and spiritual fulfilment.

Also read: New Age Militancy – Kashmir Youth Need Policies Encouraging Change, Not Surrender

This brings us to the nature of insurgency itself. What drives them to such a fate? Who are these young men? They include Nisar Dar of Parray Mohalla Hajin who has twice been booked under the Public Safety Act, which enables the government to imprison any person for up to six months without trial. His father was whacked in his skull, his hand-woven carpet torn by soldiers. He had a history of being harassed by the police, before, his family alleges, he took up the gun. Dar was finally killed in June.

Similarly, Rouf Khanday (18) of Shopian, was incarcerated for up to 45 days by the police “without showing his arrest and without providing a cause for his detention.” Khanday died among 12 other militants in the April 1 encounter. He had joined just a month and a half ago.

Khursheed Malik (23) of Pulwama was killed merely hours after joining a militant group. Malik had qualified for the written test for the post of sub-pnspector but turned to militancy because the death of Sameer Tiger, a popular Hizb fighter, left him embittered.

Shamsul Haq (25) of Shopian, brother of an IPS officer had witnessed the carnage of April 1 at close quarters. Aadil Akram (22) of Tral had put on new clothes and just two hours later arrived home dead, shot during an encounter. Aadil too had his share of traumatising run-ins with Awantipora police.

The list is endless. Therefore, what prompts young boys into militancy does not stem from a grand strategic calculus, for which the blueprint comes from across the border. Rather, it is the traumatic encounter of people with the military apparatus of the Indian state which drives recruitment.

The state and its functionaries are primarily and exclusively tasked with divesting the conflict of its political nature, treating civil disturbance as some sort of sabotage that is independent of history and context. It is this pivot on to which the Indian policy is anchored and it also happens to be the wellspring of all problems.

When all is said and done, this fact cannot be written off – that Kashmiri people have broadly refused to take part in the sort of nation-building that the Indian state has fostered after 1947. Their conceptualisation of nation-ness happened under different circumstances, in a different milieu and in response to a different set of political and social imperatives. For better or worse, they do not relate to the national iconography that the vast majority of Indians do.

After all, the idea of a nation-state is always imagined, as Benedict Anderson would tell us, and Kashmiris had already conceptualised one – well before modern day India and Pakistan were born. Today’s Kashmiris are legatees to that process. It is practically impossible to coerce them into unlearning it. Thus, the systemic use of violence will always be inevitable.

Indian intellectuals and analysts are fond of describing the Kashmiri pursuit of azadi as a ‘utopia’. But what is really utopian is the idea that countries in this age can peacefully administer an area whose people see themselves as living under military occupation without indulging in violence – and that such an arrangement can have redemptive features to it.

The writer is a Kashmiri journalist who lives in Delhi