In Kashmir, a Gathering Storm

The past week a spate of violent separatist attacks have rocked Indian-administered Kashmir. In this prescient survey of the region, Hardnews suggests that the relative quiet that has prevailed in recent years marks an evolution but not a lessening of separatist feeling in the Muslim-majority region. When the US finally withdraws from Afghanistan next year, will the Pakistan military establishment’s attention return to Kashmir?

It’s May and still cold in Srinagar. “The cool weather is just to help the flowers bloom (phool wali sardi),” I am informed cheerfully by my driver as he shifts the gear of his Innova SUV on the road leading to Srinagar’s famed Nishat Garden. Indeed, the old Mughal garden is resplendent with the colours of the most beautiful flowers. Across the road, at the Dal Lake, a shikara lazily moves over its still, but blue waters. It’s a perfect picture postcard of peace, but is it for real?

“No! Don’t go by what you see or what you are told by the central or the state government. Peace has not returned to Kashmir,” I am informed by a local journalist. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, hardline separatist leader of the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) under house arrest for months, is a little embarrassed when told about how peaceful his valley is. “It’s all superficial. If people return to work to earn their livelihood then it should not be seen as if Kashmir has become peaceful again,” says the ailing fire-breathing leader.

“Kashmiri youth have become radicalized and the movement for azadi has become more indigenous and deeper,” stresses the young and articulate Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, another APHC leader, though a moderate. Contrary to the narrative of peace built by the central and state agencies that tourism has helped the state recover from violence and terror, many Kashmiris seem to be preparing for the worst as April 2014, the much anticipated date of withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan, comes closer. A piece of graffiti – ‘Welcome to Taliban’ – scrawled near a bus stop adjacent to Srinagar’s famed Hazratbal shrine evidenced dark forebodings for the future. Based in Pakistan, extremist leader Hafiz Sayeed‘s threat to focus more on India in 2014 deepens these anxieties. Sayeed, protected by certain sections in the Pakistani establishment, has been accused by India of masterminding the 26/11 Mumbai carnage.

Although Pakistan’s assembly elections were disappointingly silent – for separatists – on the Kashmir issue, there were expectations that the radicalization of Pakistani society and the influence the Tehrik-e-Taliban might exercise on the next government would not really leave Kashmir unscathed. Young Kashmiris may have wanted cricketer Imran Khan to win the Pakistan assembly polls, but they are not unhappy with Nawaz Sharif. He, too, is seen to be close to all those who have helped Kashmiri separatists in the past. Sharif may have made friendly noises towards India, but two years of relative tranquility that the two countries have enjoyed along with Kashmir is threatening to become a casualty of the big power game. Some interested powers have begun to show inordinate interest in the Kashmir dispute all over again.

Despite quiet assurance displayed by security officials in Srinagar and New Delhi (“there are just 70-odd militants left in Kashmir and we are keeping a close watch on them”), violence showed its head in the last week of June. First, two policemen were killed and then a military convoy on the way to Baramulla was ambushed near heavily policed Hyderpura on the outskirts of Srinagar. Eight soldiers were killed in this professionally executed brazen attack. Worse, the attackers escaped unhurt.

kashmir521 Indian soldier in Srinagar. Photo CC: Alexandre Marchand.

Besides, the incident took place three days before the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, who were visiting Srinagar to inaugurate a project loaded with immense symbolism – the Banihal-Qazigund tunnel that connects the valley with the rest of the country. This 11-km link will provide a major section of all-weather rail routes between Jammu and Kashmir. The rail route is also meant to convey another message to the people of the valley and to the separatists – that Kashmir is non-negotiable and the government has the resolve and muscle to defend its projects and interests here.

If the prime minister had come a week earlier, maybe much of what he had said about peace returning to the valley would have sounded credible; but after the Hyderpura ambush, everything looked different. Also, this is the first time in many years that Indian army soldiers had died in the city of Srinagar and not at the border. In that sense, it is a serious setback.

If these two incidents of terrorism reignited the dying embers of separatism as well as the allegations of cross-border terrorism against Pakistan, then it would begin to lend meaning to the reworked narrative that has been going around in diplomatic circles. This theory, that has been made fashionable by the new Brookings paper titled, ‘A deadly triangle:

A deadly triangle:Afghanistan, Pakistan and India‘, by Delhi-based historian William Dalrymple, claims that Afghanistan’s problem cannot be solved till relations between India and Pakistan are sorted out. In his reckoning, India and Pakistan are fighting a proxy war in Afghanistan. Dalrymple, who lives in Delhi, is conscious of Indian sensitivities, but he has a flawed view of history that is bound to outrage the Afghans and Pakistanis and leave Indians wondering what he is trying to imply since he completely bails out the West and its misadventures in Afghanistan.

Ambassador James Dobbins, United States’ Af-Pak man, interestingly, repeated Dalrymple’s narrative during his recent visit to Delhi. The British writer departs from the earlier thesis of influential Pakistani writer Ahmed Rashid link up peace in Afghanistan with a solution to the Kashmir issue.

Interestingly, these pop formulations floated in the rarefied world of think-tanks and back-channel diplomacy are finding resonance on the ground. Questions of what will happen in Kashmir when the US troops leave Afghanistan are not easy to answer, but they are discussed as furiously amongst separatists as in seminars of the strategic community. Sources in the defense ministry were unable to understand how Kashmir would really get impacted by the happenings in Afghanistan, but they have done some scenario-building to ascertain what can really go wrong.

Before the Hyderpura ambush, the army thought that cross-border infiltration had come down drastically and so had the presence of foreign fighters. Though there were unconfirmed but bizarre reports of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) trying to acquire a drone to hit some targets in Kashmir, by and large, the security establishment gave an impression of being in total control of the situation. Asks a defence source: “How will the [jihadis]or those fighting with the Taliban enter India until the Pakistani army helps them cross the border?” He believes that the Pakistani army is busy fighting with the domestic Taliban and would only allow them to cross the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir if it loses this fight or changes its threat perception. The belief is, the Indian government is in control of the situation. Is that really so?

So why did insurgency break out in Kashmir in the late 1980s even when the state had been a contentious issue between the two neighbors ever since independence in 1947 and two wars had been fought over it? What was really the tipping point?

kashmir321Kashmir unrest 2012, Srinagar. Photo CC: Kashmir Global.

A discussion with a reformed militant was illuminating. He was of the view that Pakistanis were training and arming the youth in the 1960s and ’70s, but they did not threaten the Indian State as it happened in the late 1980s. In his informed reckoning, there were objective conditions that began to favor an armed revolt against the State even before the allegations of botched elections began to make the rounds. “It’s a wrong assessment. People feel that the denial of victory to the Muslim United Front was the reason for the insurrection; but violence had started much earlier and there was anger against the government and its corrupt ways. Globally, too, the existing status quo had been disturbed with the Soviet Union crumbling and its ideological and military influence waning.” He believes that objective conditions then existed for an “uprising”.

Young men had no clue about armed insurrection and they went for that option without realizing its consequences. “An entire generation was hurt and brutalized by violence. I am not sure if Kashmiris are willing to pick up arms again,” says this reformed militant.

That does not mean that Kashmiris are happy with the current state of affairs. “Talk to any young Kashmiri and they all speak the language of separatists. Every Kashmiri now wants a revolution,” claims People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader Mehbooba Mufti. Mirwaiz Farooq says that the support for their cause has grown in the last few years. “Now, so-called mainstream parties like the PDP and the National Conference have begun to speak like us. They have taken up our issues,” says the young Mirwaiz.

The agitation of 2008 and 2010 changed the character of the Kashmiri agitation. “It is totally indigenous without any involvement of any outsiders,” says Geelani. The protests of 2008 against the government’s decision to transfer 99 acres of forest land to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) saw thousands trying to cross the LoC to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK). The valley came to a standstill with radical groups demanding that political parties like the PDP should take a stand on the issue. The PDP withdrew support from the Ghulam Nabi Azad-led Congress government. The agitation not only de-legitimized the existing government, but also struck a mortal blow to the secular character of the state. The Amarnath yatra, that was an inherited and living illustration of communal amity, began to be perceived differently.

kashmir621Kashmir unrest 2012, Srinagar. Photo CC: Kashmir Global.

Indeed, religious extremism in Kashmir was stoking Hindu radicalism in Jammu. Besides issues of perception, the manner in which this agitation was quelled fed not only hate and grievance against the State, but also created folklore about young children stepping out and pelting stones at security forces. The administration was not equal to the task of responding to violent/non-violent street protests and panicked at multiple points. The ’cause’ of the Indian State was grievously damaged.

However, the main reason why the 1989-90 turbulence was not repeated was the fact that Pakistan was distracted by Afghanistan and it did not have the guts to go back on its commitment to maintain peace at the border in 2003. Also, growing perception of Pakistan being a ‘failed state’ dampened the support for an enduring demand by the likes of Geelani that Jammu and Kashmir should go with Pakistan.

The stirring electoral victory of the National Conference led by Omar Abdullah in the assembly elections of 2008 provided an opportunity for the State to recover from the cycle of violence and test whether development and quality governance could challenge separatist tendencies. “Omar got such huge support that he can make anyone envious; but he has squandered all the goodwill,” says Mehbooba who is increasingly being perceived as the next chief minister when elections are held. Omar was also helped by his close relationship with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and the fact that his father, Farooq Abdullah, was a minister at the Centre.

In 2010, the Union home ministry under P. Chidambaram sent interlocutors to Kashmir to figure out a solution within the ambit of the Constitution. Comprising journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, former Central Information Commissioner MM Ansari and academician Radha Kumar, the group ploughed through documents and met hundreds of youngsters/individuals/leaders/organizations to put together a report that could address the core concerns of Kashmiris and their longstanding feelings of ‘victimhood’. Although the Hurriyat boycotted them, the interlocutors put together a sensible report, a discussion on which could have become a starting point for those who see in ‘autonomy’ a just demand to meet the aspirations of the people.

The interlocutors made a slew of recommendations, including the release of all the young stone-pelters languishing in jail and withdrawal of cases against first-time offenders. This is one issue that rankles Kashmiri society deeply and brings out mothers onto the streets of Srinagar every week. “Almost 90 per cent of the 5,000 FIRs are against the young. And none of them is a criminal,” says Mehbooba angrily.

kashmir721Kashmir unrest 2012, Srinagar. Photo CC: Kashmir Global.

All over Kashmir, women are the worst sufferers of this conflict. Whether it is in Sopore or Kupwara or anywhere else, wailing mothers recount their pain and suffering due to the disappearance of their sons or husbands, or atrocities at the hands of the security forces. Hundreds of their loved ones have disappeared over the years. Many of these mothers have become politically trained in the azadi movement due to their sons and daughters.

The Kunan Poshpara incident of mass rape and gangrape of 53 women, allegedly by the 4 Rajputana Rifles, on February 23, 1991, has been revived yet again by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. It has been a festering wound in the state with the State Human Rights Commission and civil liberties organizations taking it up again and again. And yet there has been apparently no action against the rapists. Pathribal, Shopian, Kunan Poshpara, the death of more than 100 young protesters in recent times – the series of human rights violations and brutal assaults on women by security forces in Kashmir has left an indelible imprint on the public psyche. In most cases, there has been no justice.

“Ironically, Omar, too, questions the accession to India and the UN plebiscite, but no one says anything. But, when street protesters raise slogans on this issue, they are arrested and beaten up,” asserts Mehbooba.

The interlocutors had recommended making Article 370 permanent and ending its “temporary status” without going to the pre-1953 position in the use of language, and so on. The special status of Kashmir, which is being challenged by the BJP once again, was an attempt by Jawaharlal Nehru to show the importance the people of India gave to Kashmir; but that view is lost in the narrow definition of nationalism. The interlocutors also recommended that an uninterrupted dialogue process with visible outcomes should be initiated, and there should be an agreement between India and Pakistan to promote civil society interactions for Jammu and Kashmir on both sides of Kashmir. They also suggested harmonization of relations across the LoC. They wanted to give meaning to Manmohan Singh’s formulation to make the LoC ‘irrelevant’.

To the despair of those who wanted a creative and visionary solution to the Kashmir issue, the central government did not take any further initiative; it basically hoped that the improving economy would sort out the Kashmir problem by itself. The path-breaking, meticulous report by the interlocutors was all but dumped.

Meanwhile, after years of insurgency, tourism began to look up in the Valley. Lakhs of Indian tourists began to stream to the verdant Valley that was once romantically celebrated by yesteryear mega-stars like Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand and Sharmila Tagore. Promise, of a ‘memorable honeymoon’ in Kashmir for Indian newlyweds once again became a reality. In 2012, more tourists came to the Valley than ever before. The hills and valleys were resonating with the sounds of mirth of nouveau riche Indians.

kashmir921Srinagar, Dale Lake. Photo CC: Clara Giraud

The presence of tourists from the heartland has reshaped Srinagar in many, new ways. There are more restaurants selling south Indian dosas and vegetarian food than in the past. Also, due to the unexpected boom, householders turned their homes into lodges and hotels. The return of livelihood of those involved in the tourism sector has made many of them hostile towards the Hurriyat or those who disrupt the economy. “The Hurriyat leaders are very rich and they make money from our suffering,” a shikarawallah[boatman]complained. According to him, the Kashmiris have to be grateful to India for everything, but they are never satisfied. He cursed the separatists for bringing so much pain and suffering on the people. He was categorical and on the dot: “Why are they organizing hartals all the time? They don’t have to worry about anything as most have their children studying abroad. They are all involved in executing someone else’s agenda.”

There are many who believe in what the shikarawallah is saying. Sources in the Union home ministry, for instance. They claim that the Hurriyat gets regular instructions from its foreign masters and their attempt is to ensure that the Kashmir pot continues to boil and that means not allowing central or state initiative to succeed. The panchayat elections were a huge success despite the threats and isolated attacks on sarpanches. And the manner in which the funds were devolved through the local bodies created great excitement. Realising that democracy could strike roots and upset their calculations, the militants began to attack sarpanches, forcing them to resign. “Only a few hundred resigned out of 31,000 panchayats, which is not very much,” claimed a home ministry source.

Although Omar has tried to show that he is on the right side of the angry youth, his government’s reputation is in tatters due to corruption scandals. He tried to push for the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in areas where the presence of the army is not needed, but the army refused to entertain these requests. From the army’s perspective, the recent Hyderpura ambush of an army truck should put an end to this debate. Mehbooba is deeply critical of the corrupt ways of the National Conference government and talks of the spurt in corruption scandals. She alleges that the entire ‘Toshakhana’ of the state has been cleaned up by corrupt cronies.

The relative peace after 2010 was interrupted briefly by angry demonstrations and mass outrage against the ‘secret hanging’ of Afzal Guru in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. That his family was not even informed is a really sore point in Kashmir. Indeed, it was an opportunity for the central government and the state to ensure that the fabled Valley does not go back to violence; but the Centre chose to do nothing. There is a view that Delhi does not want to do anything and wants to convey to the protesters and their leadership that India is a ‘big superpower’ and it cannot be forced to accede to ‘unacceptable demands’. It has been hoping that economic buoyancy and the rapid decline of Pakistan would put the issue of azadi beyond the realm of discussion, but the simmering tension, hidden suffering, the quest for justice and collective aspirations continue to remain alive. Besides, as a local politician, said, “There is nothing permanent in politics or the stock market.”

As the Indian economy has begun to slide, the promise that the idea of India holds good for the people of Kashmir and other regions gets blighted. As a former militant informed this writer, the people of Kashmir are looking at the spontaneous assertion of people’s power in different parts of the world, and they think, “Why can’t it be done here?” The 2008 protests and the outrage after Guru’s hanging have emboldened them to try out once again their own politics of resistance, without really waiting for the intensely retrograde, orthodox and brutal Taliban to cross over and help them out.

kashmir821Kashmir unrest 2012, Srinagar. Photo CC: Kashmir Global.

The prime minister, while flagging off the Banihal-Qazigund tunnel, may have tried to bring Kashmir physically closer to the mainland, but the gap is still too wide to bridge. The Indian State’s credibility is never too high due to the abysmally poor quality of governance, inefficiency, corruption and insensitivity. Even while the injustice and cruelty built in the system has allowed the separatists to remain relevant.

As a local journalist said, “It’s a cool twilight peaceful morning, but who knows?”

Sanjay Kapoor