A season of loss in Kashmir

Why is it that the deaths in Kashmir, and the blinding of more than 100 people are never referred to in the media or in drawing rooms as the death and injury of Indians?

August 08, 2016 01:55 am | Updated September 20, 2016 05:34 pm IST

160808 - Oped -- Despair -Kashmir 2016- by Wajahath Habibullah IAS retd Kashmir

160808 - Oped -- Despair -Kashmir 2016- by Wajahath Habibullah IAS retd Kashmir

For days >after the killing of Burhan Wani , every TV channel rang with acrimonious debate. Wani was described by India as a terrorist and by Pakistan as a martyr. The media resounded to argument and indignation. The number of dead and injured continued to rise relentlessly. Among the earliest to be killed was Yasmina of a suburb of Kulgam in south Kashmir — her brother Amir Hussain serves in the Border Security Force in Tripura — as she fled from a street into a side lane with her teenage brother whom she was dragging away from joining the protesters. The 54th death on July 31 was of young Ishfaq Ahmed of Sopore in north Kashmir with a shattered skull, which although denied by the SP, himself a Kashmiri, the public believes was a result of beating by the police.

It was only in March this year that I had travelled to south Kashmir on the invitation of the then popular CPI(M) MLA, Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami. I was to address officials of Kulgam district on the right to information (RTI), under the District Development Commissioner, a dynamic young Kashmiri, Syed Abid Rasheed Shah, one of several young Kashmiri officers who have successfully qualified for the IAS to serve their people through governance. RTI has captured the imagination of many a young Kashmiri, within service and without. Abid is today the District Development Commissioner of Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s home district of Anantnag.

July 8 and its aftermath I drove to Kulgam and back in a taxi, unaccompanied by any security, and took a train ride to Baramulla. I wandered unaccompanied through village and bazaar in Kulgam, Sopore, Anantnag and Baramulla among Kashmiris who were milling about or laughing and chattering — as couples or small groups, along backstreet or graveyard, in village and town and in the train compartment. Although I was scolded by young Abid for ignoring security, I had at least since 1982 never felt so at peace in Kashmir. July 8 and its aftermath put paid to that delusion. The mission to win for India the people of Kashmir appears lost irretrievably.

In my own functioning as Commissioner of Kashmir Division, which covers all the districts of the Valley and the two districts of Ladakh, between turbulent 1990-93 and for years thereafter, I was the instrument of the Intelligence Bureau and the Military Intelligence and indeed the Home Ministry to sustain dialogue with all sections of the separatist leadership which had led the insurgency. One result was the peaceful resolution of the Hazratbal crisis of 1993; many of its militant players are now in the political mainstream. In my official task of keeping law and order I faced stones and gunfire, unlike today when the most lethal attack on the security forces has been through grenade. I was a civilian officer never afraid to face my own people, and I can be proud to claim today that not one of my countrymen has suffered death or even injury under my orders.

>WATCH | Unrest in the Kashmir Valley

Shah Faesal, another young Kashmiri who had stood first in the All India Services examination to join the IAS and is today Jammu and Kashmir’s Director of Education, wrote in The Indian Express of July 19: “Next day, I left for my office, incognito, wearing a kurta-pyjama and a farmer’s cap, hopping across check posts like a thief, knowing well that if a group of enraged youngsters recognised me, I might be in trouble, and rightly so, for falling on the wrong side of the Kashmiri vs. Indian binary at such a critical juncture… Ask teenagers in Srinagar and they will tell you how all these years India has been communicating to Kashmiris through rigged elections, dismissal of elected governments, through encounters and corruption. They will tell you how India has become synonymous with a military bunker or a police vehicle or a ranting panellist on prime-time television. Is this the idea of India which can win Kashmiri hearts?”

And so, India’s media, official pronouncements, security elements joined in a cacophony to confirm the warning of Shah Faesal, undoing the fragile bond that tied Kashmir to India, a land of freedom and opportunity. No Kashmiri, not even Shah Faesal, looks upon India as that.

About Burhan Wani I have mentioned the word by which Burhan Wani is described by India. Every Kashmiri refers to him as “Shaheed”. There are elements even within the ruling party of Kashmir that have sought an inquiry into the killing. There has been argument as to whether he was indeed targeted by Kashmir’s SOG. But here is what an informed Kashmiri Shujaat Bukhari has to say in Frontline : “On July 8 a party of the Special Operations Group (SOG) of the Jammu and Kashmir Police acted on a tip-off and reached Kokernag in south Kashmir to zero in on a house where Burhan Wani was spending time with two of his associates following Eid. The information was so correct that the party faced no difficulty in identifying the house and straightaway went to challenge the trio. According to the police, there was an encounter and by evening it was clear that Burhan, who had been giving the security establishment sleepless nights, was no more… The simmering discontent made it clear that Kashmir was heading for bad days after a peaceful Eid celebration. The government seems to have underestimated the spark that Burhan could ignite.”

Kokernag, where Burhan was killed, is a vale of apple orchards and walnut in south Kashmir. It was here that the young, technically savvy entrepreneur Khurram was developing his orchard with improved variety and sapling, with graft and transplant, using state-of-the-art technology based on his own painstaking research. Locals will tell you that the residents, who knew of Burhan’s presence, were pacified by the police to believe that the accretion of security presence in the vicinity on July 8 was because the Chief Minister was due to visit Khurram’s orchard. This perceived deception is said to have sparked the massive protests in a cycle of violence and counter violence by the state.

Much has been written and discussed about the Instrument of J&K’s Accession to India in 1947 and the UN resolutions of 1948. But the indisputable fact is that, despite differences, common Kashmiris, and I refer specifically to the residents of today’s troubled Valley, placed their trust unquestioningly in Sheikh Abdullah, their father figure and unchallenged leader who in the face of a violent tribal intrusion backed up by the Pakistan army, saw India as Kashmir’s hope. That makes Kashmir the only major princely state that acceded to India by the will of its people. And India had stood true to her history of giving refuge to the oppressed, be they Jew or Parsi, through the ages. It matters little what the niceties of the Instrument of Accession were. The question is, do the Kashmiris look upon themselves as Indians, as do Malayalis, Bengalis, Gujaratis or Punjabis? Shah Faesal, Syed Abid Rasheed Shah, Burhan Wani, and Khurram are modern well-educated representatives of a new generation of Kashmiris, consummate in social media, brought up in an environment steeped in violence. Each of them chose a path by which they felt they could serve their people best. Many had returned to Kashmir from comfortable occupation or business, in the hope of promised opportunity. And post-conflict, this describes well the surge of Kashmiri nationalism that grips young Kashmiris today.

This surge could have been social capital for India as, indeed, it will be seen from the examples I cite, it has been to an extent. Such sub-nationalisms are the moorings of the triumph of India as a nation. In Kashmir too this inclusion was attempted with the entry in 1975 of the nationalist Plebiscite Front, the reincarnated National Conference, still under its charismatic Baba-e-Qaum. But this attempt foundered on the shoals of the uprising of 1990. And its death is illustrated eloquently by the incineration of Khurram’s orchard in the reaction to the Burhan killing, which could have been a symbol of Kashmir’s hope in the future. And it is too easy for us to shirk responsibility by simply blaming Pakistan.

Whose death, whose injury? There is little doubt that Pakistan has taken advantage, even exacerbated our discomfiture, with every means at its command. Today, masked hoodlums roam rural Kashmir seeking recruits to their cause. But did we have any reason to doubt that it would, even after its violent birth and the wars that followed? Why then was Kashmir the Achilles heel? The events that followed the Accession, the policies pursued, and, most of all, the relationship of the Kashmiris with remaining Indians ensured that the Kashmiris might accept, even among some sections, develop affection for, but never consider themselves Indian. And why is it that the 54 deaths in Kashmir and the blinding of more than 100 people are never referred to in media or in drawing room as the death and injury of Indians?

My life’s endeavour to reach out as an Indian to my fellows in Kashmir now lies washed up in the detritus of the insurgency. Make no mistake that insurgency has failed. Nothing illustrates this better than the marginalisation of the separatist leadership, which demonstrates both its gains and its losses. But my foreboding for the next phase of the relationship of Kashmiris with India is even graver, for we have lost Kashmir’s youth, educated, talented and consumed with hatred, who will lead the State into its future.

Wajahat Habibullah, a retired civil servant, has served as Chief Information Commissioner and Chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities.

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