The unwinding in the Kashmir Valley

Putting great hopes on Narendra Modi's visit will be an audacious gamble. Photo: Nissar Ahmed  

Winter has arrived in Kashmir. The first spell of snow has fallen on the mountains, sending a crisp chill down the valley. The streets in Srinagar are filled with hawkers selling kangris, —fire pots made of clay and wicker — and the people are busy padding their homes up to fight the cold. In a month or so, a heavy snowfall will settle in, cutting the valley off from the rest of India—and from the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) as well. That’s when the guns fall silent, the militants stay back on the other side of the line, and the cycle of army patrols slows down. As the days get shorter, people will have ample time to introspect and to look back at the year that went by.

Mehboob Jeelani
This time, there isn’t much to cheer about: >the alliance of between two parties professing two differing political ideologies, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — who came together in December 2014 to govern the State on the promise of fixing its battered economy — has reached a tipping point. In the last ten months, rather than the creation of jobs and the building of public infrastructure, it is the cracks within the coalition that have become prominent. The partners have had disagreements over a range of issues — from the construction of a medical campus to the >implementation of beef ban to the protection of special legal entitlements — leaving the ruling PDP at an odd spot.

The summer passed with intense cross-border skirmishes between Indian and Pakistani troops; the autumn was struck with the beef controversy that > claimed the life of a Kashmiri trucker in Udhampur district; and the fall recorded some fierce gunfights between militants and security forces in north and south Kashmir. Amidst all this, “can-this-government-survive?,” became a catchphrase, one that the separatists as well as the Opposition National Conference politicians deployed in public forums.

Last week, Chief Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, who barely speaks to the press, came out with a series of statements to emphasise the longevity of his coalition government. He pinned a l >ot of hopes on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Srinagar on November 7, describing it “a turning point” in the State’s history, and praising him for being “inclusive” and “not intolerant”.

In agreement with him, Haseeb Drabu, the State’s Finance Minister, has often argued that with a massive Central funding—at present estimated at Rs. 1 lakh crore—the government can create a manufacturing economy and accommodate over 200,000 unemployed youth. For him, the change in economic calculus should contain the public anger.

How far that is true, it is hard to tell. What is visible on the ground troubles the State as well as the central government. On October 30, the >funeral of a Pakistani militant named Abu Qasim in south Kashmir attracted tens of thousands of people, most of them between 20 and 30 years of age. The procession, perhaps the biggest for a foreign militant in the recent history, started from the main road of Kulgam district, with a trail of roughly 30,000 people. Qasim, according to police statements, was the mastermind of the Udhampur terror attack with a bounty of Rs. 20 lakh on his head. His most recent target was Altaf Dar, a well-known counterinsurgent, whom he killed in an ambush in the forests of north Kashmir.

Seeing so many young boys eulogising Qasim's death, Waheed Parra, a PDP youth leader, said the Chief Minister is “deeply concerned” with what he described as “the increasing radicalisation of the youth”. Mr. Parra was quick to add, though, that the blame shouldn’t be squared on them. Rather than recognising them as an asset, he argued, the previous government had perceived them as a “security threat.” “Firstly, they [young Kashmiris] have a conflict with their identity,” Mr. Parra said. “Secondly, they are anti-establishment. We are trying to figure out how to integrate them into the mainstream.” However, Mr. Parra concurred with Mr. Drabu that a robust manufacturing economy can tame the dissenting youth.

The view from Bugam

On a rainy Wednesday evening, four days ahead of Prime Minister Modi’s visit, I drove to south Kashmir’s Kulgam district to understand what could have prompted the youngsters to risk their lives and give a heroic funeral to Qasim. On the way, one could identify the marks of the conflict: a couple of abandoned Pandit neighbourhoods with their facades broken and windows missing; the remnants of discarded military bunkers, their sandbags emptied with time; and some graffiti on rain-washed walls reading, “India Go Back”.

Past the rice paddies, a long stretch of road rimmed with apple orchards led to a bustling market, which serves as the marker for Kulgam district. Shops displaying grocery items, shoes, head scarves and kitchen appliances stood alongside the road crammed with minibuses, autorickshaws and SUV taxis. Most of the shopkeepers sported beards. The men in combat fatigues and balaclavas stood at almost every corner.

A stone’s throw away, a young man with black stubble stood under a canopy, braving a quick spell of rains. When asked where Qasim was buried, he swiftly pointed at a muddy road and said: “Go there and ask anyone which way Bugam is.”

A sleepy hamlet of 1200 families, Bugam was a communist hub a decade ago. From 2002 to 2008, the people at Kulgam people participated in two elections and voted for M.Y. Tarigami, the leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)]. The last one they boycotted en masse. “This [radicalisation of youth] is not only a Kulgam problem, it’s a Kashmir problem,” says Mr. Tarigami. “We have been at the centre stage of uncertainties and there has been no democratic engagement... in the entire State, so one shouldn’t be surprised seeing the youth turning up at the funeral.”

In the last two decades, according to local accounts, nine people from Bugam have joined the militants. Six were killed by the security forces and three have gone missing. “God knows what happened to them,” said a 26-year-old truck driver, Muhammad Shafi. I met Shafi at Bugam’s main square, recently named as ‘Muslim Chowk’. A tall, lean man with a pitch-black beard, Shafi had recently come out from a three-month prison sentence. His fault: he had hurled stones at the police, a charge he denies.

Five years ago, Shafi had stopped listening to music or watching movies, devoting all his energy to his work and practising Islam. “This village will either be run on Islamic principals or non-Islamic terms,” Shafi said. “We don’t allow any politician to come here. We tell them please don’t pollute this place again.”

Shafi said the villagers spent the last decade fighting the outbreak of opium addiction and alcohol consumption. “Our society was falling apart,” he said.

On the other hand, Shafi pointed out, the counter-insurgency operations never came to a halt. In his childhood, they searched for militants. As a teenager, he saw them searching for the militant informers. As he entered adulthood, the Amarnath land agitation broke in 2008, and the valley saw pitched stone-pelting battles. The counterinsurgents got a new enemy, the stone thrower. Their sorties barged into homes, looking for “suspected” stone throwers.

In 2009, Kashmir again shook with the > alleged rape and murder of Neelofar Jan and Aasia Jan in Shopian district. Their bodies were found in an apple orchard. The locals had accused the CRPF forces encamped nearby of raping and killing them. “Since then we are concerned for our women,” said Shafi. For a moment, he appeared disturbed, his voice turned grave. “Anything can happen here.”

The ordeal didn’t end there. A year later in 2010, another agitation hit the State. This time, it set off after the Army claimed to have killed three “Pakistani infiltrators” in north Kashmir who later turned out to be the residents of Nadihal village. An Army officer ganged up with a local informer and a counterinsurgent and killed the three young men in a staged manner so that they could earn cash rewards and promotions.

The three back-to-back incidents that occurred in Shafi’s formative years have left a deep impact on his psyche. He finds solace only in Islam. It is through his interpretation of Islam that he >justified the heavy presence of people at Qasim’s funeral. “Deen ki hamdardi [the love for Islam] is what attracted the youth,” he said. “And whoever fights this system is Deendar [virtuous]. So we feel privileged to have him buried here.”

Recounting a funeral

A constable who witnessed the funeral said that after hearing that Qasim was killed, the youth from adjoining districts came in cars, on motorbikes and minibuses. >They attacked the police station with bricks, demanding the body to be handed to them for the funeral. At first, the police refused. However, the outpouring of public support and the non-stop stone-throwing put the police on the backfoot and they had to release the body.

If one goes by Mr. Tarigami’s account—that the radicalisation of youth is not only a Kulgam problem but a Kashmir problem—one wonders if PDP legislators are engaging properly with its estranged youth. It seems like an audacious gamble to put great hopes on Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Kashmir. He certainly doesn’t have a magic wand with which he could sanitise the memories of the conflict and divert the youth away from the separatist politics. Looking at how people in Bugam transformed from supporting communists to becoming secessionists, the jobs alone cannot address the alienation.

A Saturday

On Saturday, Prime Minister Modi will address a big crowd in Sher-i-Kashmir Cricket Stadium. Security has been tightened. Sniffer dogs are making rounds in and around the stadium. The separatists have asked the people to mark their protest against Mr. Modi’s visit by holding a parallel “million march”. However, that would not mean much as they have either been detained or placed under house arrest. About 500 people have been tossed in various police stations as well.

In such an atmosphere, it’ll be interesting to see whether Mr. Modi can “win the hearts of Kashmiri people”. The cricket stadium where he’ll deliver his lecture has a historic significance. In 1986, at a match between India and West Indies, young men, some of whom became separatist leaders in later years, breached the security and swarmed the pitch during the lunch break. They couldn’t reconcile with the fact that India had hosted an international match in the “disputed region”.

Let’s see if Prime Minister Modi starts the unwinding from there.


Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 13, 2021 10:54:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/The-unwinding-in-the-Kashmir-Valley/article10198628.ece

Next Story