An Untimely Death
A POPULAR YOUNG MILITANT IS KILLED, A SEETHING POPULACE ERUPTS AND THE STATE AGAIN FAILS TO MANAGE THE FALLOUT
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
(FROM NEAR LEFT) A MAN INJURED IN THE CLASHES IN SRINAGAR AT A LOCAL HOSPITAL; KASHMIRI PROTESTERS PELT STONES AT SECURITYMEN DURING CLASHES IN THE CITY, JULY 10
MUZAFFAR AHMAD WANI, FATHER OF SLAIN MILITANT BURHAN WANI, TAKES A FINAL PHOTO OF HIS SON DURING THE FUNERAL PROCESSION IN SHAREEF VILLAGE, TRAL, JULY 9, 2016
A KASHMIRI MAN WALKS PAST SHUTTERED SHOPS IN SRINAGAR, JULY 11, 2016