Behind the rage in south Kashmir

As unrest grips the Valley in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s death, the challenge is to avert another round of large-scale insurgency.

July 16, 2016 01:19 am | Updated December 31, 2016 12:08 pm IST

On Wednesday afternoon, several men wearing masks and bandannas felt that their makeshift barricade wasn’t strong enough to keep the sorties of police and paramilitary forces at bay. A few minutes ago, a police truck had breached through the burning rubber tyres and a cordon of rocks, giving them a chase accompanied by tear gas canisters and volleys of pellets, pushing them into labyrinthine alleyways of Batamaloo, a clustered neighbourhood on the outskirts of Srinagar city.

Like in many other parts of Kashmir, the residents of Batamaloo clashed with the police on June 8 after news of the >killing of Burhan Wani , the 22-year-old commander of Hizbul Mujahideen singularly instrumental in re-stirring home-grown insurgency, spread like wildfire. Tapping into local resentment at the heavy presence of Indian troops which he termed as “occupation”, Burhan, in a span of only six years, managed to cultivate a fan base through social media with his clarion call for “freedom” — a fan base that translated into a sudden upsurge in the numbers of local militants last year.

Though the numbers have come down subsequently, the threat of an insurgency redux is all too real as Kashmir explodes once again in anger after Burhan’s killing and defiance is writ large, with over 1,00,000 turning up for his funeral and security forces facing stone-pelting in several districts.

The Hizbul Mujahideen The Hizb was created in 1989 with an aim to shift the focus of insurgency from the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which fought to make Kashmir independent of both India and Pakistan. Affiliated to the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Hizb managed to recruit local fighters faster than the JKLF, and it decisively steered the separatist movement to an Islamist, >pro-Pakistan ideology . But by 2000, security forces had weakened the outfit to such an extent that its numbers came down from several thousand fighters to a few dozen.

Security personnel stand guard during a curfew in Srinagar on Friday.

The emergence of Burhan, however, brought the Hizb out of the shadows of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The two groups have always maintained operational distance in public but, says a senior Jammu and Kashmir police officer, share a “good working relationship” on the ground.

It’s “too soon to say” if Burhan’s death would help the Hizb swell its ranks, insists Atul Karwal, Inspector General of Police of the Central Reserve Police Force. But the scale at which >stone-pelting mobs have erupted in Kashmir is intimidating. The peace on the streets seems distant — as evidenced by the restive mob in Batamaloo engaging the police for the sixth consecutive day. Many prominent intellectuals and journalists caution against the new threat of home-grown militancy in Kashmir, which is perceived to be deadlier than the one that began in 1989 and waned by 1998, and the defiant stone-pelters are seen as potential recruits.

The arrival of Burhan redefined the local militancy. People found his bravado on social media appealing, and he had no qualms in identifying the Indian Army and paramilitary forces as his primary targets. His daring messages erased the fear of military retaliation among a significant proportion of the youth — many of whom have his pictures and videos saved on their cell phones.

Burhan’s generation was born in the mid-nineties, when gun-toting militants were no longer a common sight. At the turn of the millennium, as they entered their school age, the signs of normality were visible in Kashmir. The thaw in India-Pakistan relations had paved the way for a healthy-looking dialogue process. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister, was taking significant strides towards striking a peace deal with Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf. And Kashmir was on top of their agenda. But as Burhan and his generation entered their early teens, the peace process began unravelling. In 2008, a series of protests erupted against the transfer of land to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board, which quickly morphed into a pro-independence agitation, claiming the lives of 60 protesters. Two years later, the killing of a Class XII student named Tufail Mattoo triggered another wave of mass protest that killed about 120 people.

Villagers offer funeral prayers at Burhan Wani’s funeral procession in Tral.

This was when the younger generation was exposed to state brutalities. The images of severely injured men, many of them teenagers, exposed the younger generation to the violent reaction of the state, forcing them to make a choice between separatism and mainstream politics. Many chose the former.

Stone-pelters versus the state Amjad Khan (name changed), 21, is among the faceless stone-pelters in Batamaloo. In 2014, Khan found a mentor in Burhan. Each time he watched a new Burhan video on YouTube, his idea about secessionist politics altered. While growing up, he’d heard stories of the previous phase of insurgency from his uncle. And all he could gather from them was that the state crushed it with its military might. His uncle often spoke about the horrors of curfews and crackdowns, narrating the rise and fall of the 1990s insurgency with regret and resignation.

On Wednesday, as the speeding police truck gave chase, Khan led a team of protesters towards a steep road that was deserted barring the presence of a few dozen dogs. Along the way, he took his mask off to drink water from a nearby tap, and then pointed towards a collection of sewer pipes lying across the road. They took a pipe from the bundle and rolled it down the road. The other protesters, watching from a distance, grew excited. More men emerged out of the alleyways, shouting anti-India slogans and blowing finger-whistles. Some of them — a few too young to even shave — beat the closed shutters of shops with stones and metal rods, creating the clamour that sounded like a war cry. Within no time, a cocktail of bricks, stones and abuses was hurled at the cops, who were quick to raise their worn-out bamboo shields. At the rear end, the paramilitary troopers fired several rounds of tear gas canisters that either exploded in loud thuds or discharged pungent smoke. Yet, the protesters showed no sign of retreat. They made steady advances, pushing the police and paramilitary forces across a small bridge.

At first, Khan appeared like an unofficial leader of the crowd. But later, it turned out these men were on their own with no one to lead them. Oftentimes, they have come together like this, either to protest the arrests of separatist leaders or the killings of civilians.

A Kashmiri youngster who was wounded in pellet firing.

But this time, like the protesters of north and south Kashmir, they were out on the street for a reason many political experts and analysts find hard to fathom. They were out to mourn Burhan, a militant with a bounty of Rs.10 lakh, and pay ‘homage’ to him by hitting and injuring as many policemen as possible. The emotional response took the local government led by Peoples Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party (PDP-BJP) coalition by surprise. The government forces responded to the unrest with bullets, pellets and smoke bombs, killing at least 39 people until July 15, including a woman and a teenager, and injuring over 1,400. Insha, a 14-year-old girl, was the first to lose her eyesight after getting hit by pellets fired by the security forces, and 90 more are fighting to avert her fate.

What has changed here? In the last decade or so, several hundred foreign militants have been killed by the police, Army and paramilitary forces. However, the display of public resentment was largely confined to the places where they were gunned down.

Between 2000 and 2010, the police handing over the body bags to gravediggers at midnight was commonplace. A neighbourhood imam would quietly offer funeral prayers, sometimes for several unidentified bodies lowered in one grave, and life would move on.

Burhan’s death continues to have the Valley in its grip, triggering a rage that refuses to die. After speaking to 20 stone-pelters in various parts of Srinagar, it emerged that the thought of replacing stones with guns does cross their minds. Half of them have lost faith in Indian democracy and are on the verge of crossing the Line of Control (LoC) to the other side, where they expect to acquire arms training, but the lack of guidance and logistical support is holding them back. The other half is still holding on to a glimmer of hope — that perhaps the government of India might take certain people-friendly measures: Quashing the FIRs against stone-pelters, scrapping the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, demilitarising the civilian areas and making the security apparatus accountable to the people.

Amjad Khan is amenable. His anger towards the state is rooted in the killing of his best friend. Let’s call him Masood. In 2007, when Khan was 14, Masood was hit by a bullet that allegedly came from the barrel of a paramilitary trooper. The government described it as a “stray bullet”. “He was on a ventilator for four days,” says Khan with a look of stoic resignation.

While Masood was battling for his life, Khan picked up stones and hurled them at the security forces. “The police took his corpse and demanded that we should bury him in the night,” he says. “His [Masood’s] father told them, ‘He [Masood] is my only son and everyone should see his funeral.’” Masood’s funeral attracted large crowds. Eulogising him as a “hero”, women tossed sweets at his coffin. A month later, the police arrived outside Khan’s residence at midnight and placed a ladder to the second-floor window of his bedroom. They jumped in, dragged him down the staircase and whisked him away. It took him several hours to come out of the “shock” and realise that he was in a police lock-up.

Twenty-eight days later, Khan was set free on a condition — that he would spend Fridays in the police lock-up. “Skipping school on Fridays affected my studies. My parents begged the police officers that they should let go. They didn’t,” says Khan. His ordeal with the police pushed him away from his studies. By 2010, he had dropped out of school. He spent most of his days either sleeping or sitting idle at home. “I didn’t throw stones at the police either,” he says.

In June 2010, however, the picture of a dead teenager named Tufail Mattoo published in the morning newspaper troubled him. Mattoo was returning home from a private tutor’s when his head was struck by a tear gas shell fired by the police to quell a protest. The image was chilling — Mattoo, eyes half-open, in his red-striped shirt on a stretcher, brain splattered all over. Tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets to protest the killing.

The security forces killed roughly 120 people and injured several thousands in the next three months. Burhan and Khan came of age that violent summer. Khan returned to stone-pelting. And Burhan disappeared in the mountains after a group of counterinsurgents reportedly assaulted him outside Tral, his hometown. A year later, he emerged as a gun-wielding militant.

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