An Un­timely Death


India Today - - INSIDE - KASH­MIR

Kash­mir erupts as it mourns mil­i­tant­turned-mar­tyr Burhan Wani’s killing. The Val­ley is cer­tainly not in a mood to ei­ther for­give or for­get

Tum kitne Burhan maroge? Har ghar se Burhan niklega (How many Burhans will you kill? A Burhan will emerge from ev­ery home)!” This wasn’t just a grief­stricken mother’s an­guish at the un­timely death of her son. It was a col­lec­tive out­pour­ing of anger; an in­ter­minable sense of rage that now threat­ens to con­sume the long-trou­bled Kash­mir Val­ley.

July 8 started out as an­other sum­mer day, the first sum­mer in three years that had come with a mod­icum of cheer. With over 6,000 ar­rivals ev­ery day, tourist foot­falls were hap­pily back to an all-time high. Taxi­cabs and ho­tel rooms were again much in de­mand. Back in the Jammu & Kash­mir sec­re­tar­iat beyond Lal Chowk, chief min­is­ter Mehbooba Mufti and her gov­ern­ment, barely 90 days old, were grap­pling with the busi­ness of gover­nance. All that changed in a mat­ter of hours—and how!

In the space of three short hours that evening, the Val­ley was sent hurtling into chaos, rem­i­nis­cent of, but per­haps even more un­cer­tain than, the trou­bled early 1990s when hun­dreds of Kash­miris joined a fum­ing mil­i­tant move­ment for azadi, then too, avidly pushed by Pak­istan.

Close to dusk, 21-year-old Hizb-ul Mu­jahideen (HM) com­man­der Burhan Muzaf­far Wani was killed in what officials de­scribed as a “brief but fierce” gun bat­tle in Kok­er­nag in Anant­nag, which, un­til she was sworn in as CM on April 4, was rep­re­sented by Mehbooba Mufti in the Lok Sabha. Con­ducted by the J&K Po­lice’s Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Group (SOG), backed by a Rashtriya Ri­fles (RR) unit of the army, the en­counter at an iso­lated home­stead in Waye-Bem­doora vil­lage ended in the slay­ing of Burhan and two other HM men, Sar­taj Ah­mad Sheikh and Pervez Ahmed Lashkari. Two po­lice per­son­nel suf­fered bul­let wounds in the ex­change of fire. Four weapons—Kalash­nikovs snatched from se­cu­rity per­son­nel—and a gen­er­ous sup­ply of bul­lets were re­cov­ered from the slain ter­ror­ists.

What would or­di­nar­ily have been writ­ten away and for­got­ten as yet an­other of the dozens of ‘en­coun­ters’ in the trou­bled state, Burhan’s killing sparked off a never-seen-be­fore flare-up of rage across the Val­ley. Protesters pelted stones and Molo­tov cock­tails at po­lice and para­mil­i­tary per­son­nel. Com­pletely un­mind­ful of their own safety, or­di­nary peo­ple were seen fight­ing pitched bat­tles with armed se­cu­rity per­son­nel, even ran­sack­ing and torch­ing po­lice posts, bunkers and army camps. Wom­en­folk and chil­dren as young as 11 and 15 years old joined in. By July 12, four days af­ter

the Burhan en­counter, some 30 civil­ians, all young Kash­miris with no fath­omable link to mil­i­tancy, and one po­lice­man, had died. An es­ti­mated 1,300 had been ad­mit­ted to hos­pi­tals with bul­let and pel­let wounds, forc­ing state-run hos­pi­tals in Sri­na­gar to de­clare a ‘med­i­cal emer­gency’.

Although a big back­lash was ex­pected, given Burhan Wani’s huge con­nect with a swelling num­ber of young Kash­miris in­creas­ingly alien­ated both from the idea of In­dia and Kash­mir’s main­stream pol­i­tics, al­most ev­ery­one—from the Mehbooba Mufti gov­ern­ment, to the se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment in Delhi, to the J&K po­lice, to the sep­a­ratist hard­lin­ers, failed com­pletely to an­tic­i­pate the scale and tenor of the re­ac­tion.

Se­nior sources within J&K’s po­lice es­tab­lish­ment told IN­DIA TO­DAY that the SOG felled Burhan af­ter pin­point­ing the lo­ca­tion of the smart­phones he had been us­ing for the past sev­eral days. If this is true, then it has to be as­sumed that ev­ery­one of con­se­quence in the po­lice force, civil ad­min­is­tra­tion, army and gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing the CM, who is also the state’s home min­is­ter, was aware of the op­er­a­tion and the po­ten­tial cri­sis the HM com­man­der’s cap­ture or killing could pre­cip­i­tate.

In­cred­i­bly, de­spite this, when news of Burhan’s slay­ing be­gan spread­ing like wild­fire within min­utes of the Kok­er­nag en­counter, the gov­ern­ment seemed com­pletely un­pre­pared. In fact, the move to dis­able mo­bile in­ter­net and tele­phony, even in the most-likely-to-burn dis­tricts of Pul­wama, Kul­gam, Anant­nag and Shopian, came long af­ter in­fu­ri­ated crowds from all over the Val­ley had set out to con­verge on Tral, the dead mil­i­tant’s vil­lage in south Kash­mir which now has his grave.

In the wake of Afzal Guru’s con­tro­ver­sial hang­ing in Fe­bru­ary 2013, and de­spite the Union home min­istry’s de­ci­sion to in­form the then CM Omar Ab­dul­lah just 12 hours be­fore the ex­e­cu­tion, swiftly de­ployed mea­sures had helped ward off what could have been an iden­ti­cal cri­sis. Ev­i­dently, the Mehbooba Mufti gov­ern­ment failed to ap­ply any of the lessons from 2013. Voices from within the rul­ing PDP are only now bandy­ing about suggestion­s that “the po­lice should have de­layed declar­ing his (Burhan’s) death”.

J&K Po­lice’s in­tel­li­gence chief S.M. Sa­hai, usu­ally clued in to all that is un­fold­ing in the state, ad­mits that the se­cu­rity forces were taken by sur­prise. Trou­ble, he says, erupted at un­likely lo­ca­tions while ex­pected epi­cen­tres, like Burhan’s vil­lage of Tral, re­mained rel­a­tively peace­ful de­spite the huge as­sem­bly of 150,000 mourn­ers at his fu­neral.

Much of the early vi­o­lence, in­clud­ing the loot­ing of weapons and torch­ing of a po­lice sta­tion, Sa­hai told IN­DIA TO­DAY, oc­curred at lo­ca­tions like Damhal Han­ji­pora, which had never re­ported trou­ble be­fore July 9. Ad­mit­ting that the vi­o­lence could have been con­tained in nor­mal cir­cum­stances, po­lice officials point to the fact that “with a large chunk of po­lice and para­mil­i­tary units al­ready com­mit­ted to se­cur­ing the on­go­ing Amar­nath ya­tra, not only were we thin on re­sources, but had vir­tu­ally no time for mo­bil­i­sa­tion”.

“Alive or dead, Burhan Wani is merely sym­bolic of what ac­tu­ally ran­kles ev­ery Kash­miri,” says a for­mer of­fi­cer whose three-decade­long polic­ing ca­reer strad­dles the in­sur­gency in Kash­mir. The utter fu­til­ity of in­no­cent lives lost un­der­scores Kash­mir’s new re­al­ity—the alien­ation of an en­tire gen­er­a­tion of younger Kash­miris smart­ing with anger and un­will­ing to com­pro­mise

A big back­lash was ex­pected con­sid­er­ing Burhan’s con­nect with young Kash­miris, but the state didn’t an­tic­i­pate the scale of it

on their ul­ti­mate dream—azadi. It’s a co­hort that self-rad­i­calises, hap­pily feed­ing off the in­ter­net, herowor­ship­ping men like Burhan and ig­nor­ing the ap­peals for peace, even those by usu­ally ven­er­ated vet­er­ans like Syed Ali Shah Gee­lani. His call for re­straint, ask­ing protesters not to at­tack po­lice sta­tions and am­bu­lances, was re­port­edly met with de­ri­sion on the streets.

Flashes of what un­folded af­ter the Burhan killing had been abun­dantly vis­i­ble for close to a year. Spon­ta­neous mini up­ris­ings have al­most been an ev­ery­day oc­cur­rence across the Val­ley. And the phe­nom­e­non, rou­tine in the more trou­bled south Kash­mir dis­tricts, in­ter­mit­tently spilled to the north, like in Kup­wara’s Lo­lab val­ley on April 29 when stone-pelt­ing vil­lagers ac­tively helped some sus­pected Lashkar-eTaiba ter­ror­ists es­cape the se­cu­rity forces’ cor­don.

Back in April, days af­ter vi­o­lence erupted in the usu­ally trou­ble-free Hand­wara, trig­gered by ru­mours of an army sol­dier mo­lest­ing a school­girl, the re­frain for azadi was al­ready res­onat­ing. In the thick of it all in south Kash­mir’s Pul­wama dis­trict, a po­lice of­fi­cer ac­tively en­gaged in counter-in­sur­gency op­er­a­tions ad­mits that the “cur­rent at­mos­phere closely mim­ics that in the late 1980s and early 1990s”. An im­por­tant dif­fer­ence, he says, is that while that up­surge of mil­i­tancy was fu­elled and spon­sored by the Zia-ul-Haq regime in Pak­istan, what is hap­pen­ing now is com­pletely home-grown.

Con­sider this: close to 40 per cent of Kash­mir’s pop­u­la­tion, born af­ter 1990, has no ex­pe­ri­ence of life with­out strife, with­out fear, with­out the per­sis­tent, in­vari­ably un­nerv­ing pres­ence of khaki or cam­ou­flaged mil­i­tary fa­tigues, jack­boots and Kalash­nikovs. “Un­like in the ’90s when peo­ple who joined the strug­gle had no no­tion of what the state could un­leash, to­day’s youth has a morethan-fair idea of what to ex­pect,” says Parvez Im­roz, 60, chair­man of the Jammu & Kash­mir Coali­tion of Civil So­ci­ety.

The downslide, from the rel­a­tive calm of the early 2000s, has been in the mak­ing since 2010 when 112 young Kash­miris—out of the thou­sands that took to the streets to ar­tic­u­late their frus­tra­tion over po­lice ex­cesses and the then in­cum­bent Omar Ab­dul­lah gov­ern­ment’s failure to come good on poll prom­ises—were gunned down by se­cu­rity forces.

Thirty-eight-year-old for­mer jour­nal­ist Khur­ram Parvez, now a full-time rights ac­tivist based in Sri­na­gar, says the de­jec­tion which set in post the sum­mer of 2010 crack­down turned to anger and re­sent­ment af­ter Afzal Guru’s ex­e­cu­tion on Fe­bru­ary 9, 2013. He says it renewed the re­solve of Kash­mir’s youth for whom the “idea of azadi only con­sol­i­dated fur­ther with Naren­dra Modi’s as­cent to Delhi in 2014 and his sub­se­quent ar­rival in J&K in 2015”.

ADGP Sa­hai too ac­knowl­edges the fact that “anger has been build­ing since 2013” and had be­come in­creas­ingly ev­i­dent over “the past six to eight months, demon­strat­ing it­self in the in­creased par­tic­i­pa­tion at mil­i­tant funer­als”.

The num­bers say it all: since

the sum­mer of 2010, close to 10,000 FIRs in­vok­ing pro­vi­sions of Jammu and Kash­mir’s Pub­lic Safety Act have been filed in in­stances of stone-pelt­ing. But the move has clearly failed; the num­ber of young­sters hurl­ing stones at se­cu­rity per­son­nel has only swelled.

The late Mufti Mo­ham­mad Say­eed’s de­ci­sion to form an al­liance with the BJP at the end of a bel­liger­ent poll cam­paign in which Mehbooba Mufti vo­cif­er­ously warned Kash­miris of the per­ils of al­low­ing the Modi-led BJP even the slight­est foothold in the Val­ley, has clearly left a large sec­tion of those who voted for the PDP feel­ing cheated. This in­cludes young­sters af­fil­i­ated with the Ja­maat and Hur­riyat separatist­s, who are now ac­tively push­ing ap­pre­hen­sions that the saf­fron ingress into the Val­ley will even­tu­ally an­ni­hi­late Is­lam and Kash­miriyat.

It’s no sur­prise, then, that the PDP stronghold­s in South Kash­mir have been the worst af­fected by the protests. In fact, Mehbooba’s par­lia­men­tary con­stituency, Anant­nag, is where the max­i­mum se­cu­rity forces were de­ployed to quell protests, re­sult­ing in as many as 15 civil­ian deaths.

Events out­side the Val­ley, right from the Dadri lynch­ing in Ut­tar Pradesh to the at­tacks on Kash­miri stu­dents study­ing out­side the Val­ley have found res­o­nance among mil­i­tant mind­sets. Equally bruis­ing to the Kash­miri psy­che have been the gov­ern­ment pro­pos­als to cre­ate seg­re­gated en­claves for es­tranged Pan­dits and re­tired sol­diers and calls by BJP men for re­vo­ca­tion of Ar­ti­cle 370.

Mo­ham­mad Yousuf Tarigami, leg­is­la­tor from Kul­gam for the fourth suc­ces­sive term and the only CPI(M) mem­ber in the J&K as­sem­bly, at­tributes the cur­rent un­rest to the ab­sence of a po­lit­i­cal re­sponse. “The first re­ac­tion of the gov­ern­ment (in Delhi) was to send in more troops,” he says pointing to home min­is­ter Ra­j­nath Singh’s de­ci­sion to fly in ad­di­tional CRPF com­pa­nies on July 10.

Mean­while, at the Cen­tre, no ma­jor pol­icy de­ci­sion was taken even at the July 12 meet­ing with the prime min­is­ter (newly re­turned from his African tour) which was at­tended by Ra­j­nath Singh, min­is­ter for ex­ter­nal af­fairs Sushma Swaraj, de­fence min­is­ter Manohar Par­rikar, min­is­ter in the PMO Ji­ten­dra Singh and NSA A.K. Do­val. The only firm

con­clu­sion, in­sid­ers re­port, was that the sit­u­a­tion had wors­ened be­cause the state gov­ern­ment was not proac­tive in tak­ing firm pre­emp­tive steps. The Cen­tre be­lieves the sit­u­a­tion wors­ened be­cause the PDP-led gov­ern­ment al­lowed crowds to gather dur­ing Burhan’s fu­neral. An ap­peal for peace to the peo­ple of Kash­mir was is­sued by the prime min­is­ter soon af­ter the meet­ing.

How­ever, the Cen­tre also seems to be­lieve that only 25 per cent of the Val­ley is af­fected by the un­rest and the strong ac­tion taken by the se­cu­rity forces was jus­ti­fied as the crowds had be­come vi­o­lent. In fact, it might re­vive the ear­lier pol­icy of not hand­ing over the bod­ies of slain mil­i­tants to fam­i­lies and call­ing a few se­lected rel­a­tives to buri­als con­trolled by the se­cu­rity forces in­stead.

A stronger line with Pak­istan is an­other likely out­come. Many in the Sangh pari­var be­lieve Modi erred in al­low­ing in­ter­na­tional con­sid­er­a­tions to dic­tate his Pak­istan pol­icy. Now Kash­mir is likely to de­ter­mine the tone of this relationsh­ip once more. As ex­pected, the con­fla­gra­tion in the Val­ley de­lighted Islamabad which has looked at cross-bor­der ter­ror­ism and civil­ian protests as a two-pronged strat­egy of keep­ing the Val­ley on the boil. On July 11, Pak­istan Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif’s of­fice is­sued a state­ment, call­ing Burhan Wani a “Kash­miri leader” and “ex­pressed his deep shock” at his killing “and that of many other civil­ians by the In­dian mil­i­tary and para­mil­i­tary forces”. The state­ment earned a quick slap­down from New Delhi. On July 11, the MEA called it in­ter­fer­ence in In­dia’s in­ter­nal af­fairs and said Sharif’s state­ment re­flected its “at­tach­ment to ter­ror­ism and its us­age as an in­stru­ment of state pol­icy”.

Back in April in the wake of the trou­ble in Hand­wara, the PDP ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter and spokesper­son Naeem Akhtar acknowledg­ed the grow­ing alien­ation in the Val­ley, but in­sisted that the ‘Agenda of the Al­liance’—a 16-page char­ter that spells out the com­mon ground for the PDP-BJP part­ner­ship—had the ingredient­s to res­cue the sit­u­a­tion. Three months on, Akhtar must surely see that the Coali­tion has barely moved on the much tom-tommed agenda.

The prom­ise to “help ini­ti­ate a sus­tained and mean­ing­ful di­a­logue with all in­ter­nal stake­hold­ers, which will in­clude all po­lit­i­cal groups ir­re­spec­tive of their ide­o­log­i­cal views and predilec­tions” re­mains a pipedream. Deno­ti­fy­ing ‘dis­turbed ar­eas’ as a pre­cur­sor to par­tially re­vok­ing AFSPA (Armed Forced Spe­cial Pow­ers Act), “rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and con­fi­dence build­ing within and across the LoC” and vir­tu­ally ev­ery other point listed in the doc­u­ment re­mains un­ful­filled.

In the cur­rent cri­sis too, Mehbooba’s ev­i­dently clue­less gov­ern­ment went MIA. Three days into the protests, the CM her­self was nowhere in ev­i­dence, bar­ring a cou­ple of state­ments call­ing for peace. Akhtar, who emerged to ad­dress a news con­fer­ence on July 11, left in a huff af­ter reporters per­sisted with dis­com­fit­ing queries. And while the rest of the PDP min­is­ters re­mained en­sconced in their heav­ily guarded of­fi­cial homes in Sri­na­gar, most of the BJP promptly headed home to Jammu.

So where is it all headed? “They (the protesters) will soon tire and things will re­turn to ‘nor­mal’ un­til the next erup­tion,” says a for­mer cop fa­mil­iar with the work­ings in Delhi and Sri­na­gar. Pointing out that there has been “no dis­cernible in­crease in lo­cal re­cruit­ments to mil­i­tant ranks”, Sa­hai in­sists the cur­rent protests over Burhan’s killing are “no pop­u­lar en­dorse­ment for mil­i­tancy”. Even if ac­cu­rate, the of­fi­cer’s as­sess­ment is lit­tle com­fort for Kash­mir’s fu­ture.

What re­mains un­re­solved and a far greater worry is the seething fury con­sum­ing Kash­mir. More than home-grown mil­i­tants, the prospect of or­di­nary school- and col­lege-go­ing young­sters, many as young as 10 and 12, bat­tling po­lice and will­ing to die do­ing so, is a fright­en­ing prospect.

PDP stronghold­s in south Kash­mir were the worst af­fected; Mehbooba’s con­stituency saw as many as 15 civil­ian deaths




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