In the summer of 2016, the Kashmir valley was again engulfed in an agonizing period of turmoil. Angry mobs attacked police stations and security installations. Masked youth paraded the streets, some as young as eight, forcing shopkeepers to down shutters, stoning army and police forces, painting anti-India graffiti on every available wall. The police retaliated by firing pellet guns and inflicting gross injuries. In four weeks, close to fifty people died and over 6,000 were injured. Around twenty people were fully or partially blinded and 4,000 policemen were wounded.
What led to this horrible and tragic situation?
The immediate trigger was the death of a twenty-two-year-old Kashmiri guerrilla named Burhan Wani, killed in an encounter with security forces. Wani had become a social media icon for young Kashmiris, who saw him as a symbol for the struggle for freedom. Born into a Jamaat-e-Islami family in the guerrilla stronghold of Tral in south Kashmir, Wani dropped out of school to join the Hizbul Mujahideen when he was fifteen. According to his family and friends, he made his decision following the humiliation of his older brother at a security checkpost. His father said he wanted to join the Indian Army when he was ten. He was the Hizbul’s commander for south Kashmir when he died.
The organization he belonged to had withered by the mid-2000s, but Wani infused new life into it. He was not particularly notable as an armed guerrilla; according to the Jammu and Kashmir police force, he had been implicated in the murders of two sarpanches and three troops over the course of six years. But he was adept at social media, posting selfies in army fatigues complete with gun, and recording speeches calling for azaadi and the establishment of a caliphate. Fair and brown-eyed, with the slightly chubby cheeks of an adolescent, his social media campaign was a hit amongst the valley’s unemployed and partially educated youth, who were, as in the rest of India, a sizable demographic.
Pulwama district, where Wani grew up, had recently emerged as a hub of Hizbul guerrillas driven out of Srinagar and Budgam. But it had been a dissident centre for much longer. Lying between Budgam and Shopian, it was a prosperous area of orchards clustered around a merchant town, frequently visited for funds by the guerrillas. The deep and thick forests of Tral had provided hiding and training grounds for cross-border guerrillas since 1948.
The valley erupted over Wani’s death. Reports of attendance at his funeral varied from 30,000 to 150,000; armed guerrillas who were present vowed revenge. Protesters set fire to police stations and attacked security installations. The police were not in a position to deter them with effective barricades, tear gas or water cannon. Lacking supplies of tear gas or water cannon, the police fell back on the pellet guns as non-lethal weapons. The guns proved lethal when fired in proximity. Close to thirty people died in the three days following his killing.
Kashmir was back on the boil, and the union and state governments appeared as unprepared as they had been in 2010. Though essential supplies were rushed to the valley, and union Home Minister Rajnath Singh called back-to-back emergency meetings—indeed, Prime Minister Modi and NSA Ajit Doval were said to monitor the situation hour by hour—violence continued to mount over subsequent months. It was exacerbated by the full glare of social and electronic media, the former spouting visceral hate and the latter an inhuman callousness to the intense suffering of the bereaved. Anchors chorused on national television channels that Kashmiris were seditious, anti-national and traitors, and the refrain was taken up by the ruling BJP’s spokesmen.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s weak response played into the rapidly increasing rift between Delhi and the valley. Her statement that she would have stopped the police operation had she known Wani was the target infuriated the police, who had tried to persuade him to surrender when he was surrounded. Her appeals to civil society groups, religious organizations and dissidents to help end the violence had little effect. Though she directed PDP MLAs to visit their constituencies and help calm the situation, they continued to huddle in their homes, afraid of reprisal. By the end of the year, over 100 youths had died in clashes between stone-throwers and security forces in the valley.
If Wani’s death was an immediate trigger of the 2016 violence, the warning signs had mounted since we ended our mission in October 2011.
Though the Singh administration did not act on our recommendations, 2012 seemed like a year of peace. In February, the valley celebrated when a young Kashmiri called Shah Faesal topped the all-India Civil Services Examination. A ‘face of hope reflects calm in Kashmir’, wrote the New York Times correspondent describing the young administrator’s first public meeting. The state government achieved a record tax collection of `4,800 crore (48 billion). Tourists continued to pour in. Municipal elections were planned and the state government announced sixteen new councils.
Yet, counter-trends continued.There were sporadic incidents of stoning. A re-emboldened Dukhtaran-e-Millat, led by Asiya Andrabi, sent groups of burqa-clad activists to raid city restaurants and public parks to ‘prevent young couples from celebrating Valentine’s Day’. In Pakistan, the Lashkar and Jaish launched new drives to mobilize guerrillas to ‘support the freedom struggle’ in Kashmir. India–Pakistan initiatives to pick up on peacemaking withered as Pakistan entered a pre-election phase with elections scheduled in spring 2013. Sadly, the state government’s attempt to hold municipal elections widened the Jammu–valley gulf. Twelve of the sixteen new municipal councils were in the valley and only four in Jammu. Jammu commentators called it ‘a glaring act of discrimination’. These signs of continuing volatility apart, 2012 was still a year of calm compared to the five preceding years.
The tenuous peace of 2012 came to an abrupt halt in February 2013 when the Singh administration decided to hang Afzal Guru, who had been sentenced to death a decade earlier for his role in the parliament attack of 2001. He was secretly hanged without being given the chance to meet his family, and his body was buried in the compound of Tihar jail, where he had been on death row since 2002. Thirty-six people were injured in protests in his hometown Sopore, Baramulla and Pulwama. Twenty-three were policemen. In Delhi, there were clashes between BJP and Kashmiri student activists.
Terrorist attacks rose in the aftermath of Guru’s hanging. In late February, a series of blasts in Hyderabad killed sixteen; in March, a guerrilla attack in Srinagar left seven dead; in April, there was a blast in Bengaluru in which, fortunately, no one died; and in June, there was another guerrilla attack in Srinagar in which eight were killed.
Guru’s hanging elicited more protest than his sentence had. He had been a double agent, working for Pakistani as well as Indian intelligence services. Most Kashmiris accepted his complicity but asked that his sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. There had been presidential clemency before, notably in the case of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins. Moreover, Guru’s execution was bumped up over others still pending on death row, some of them with earlier sentences than Guru. Many in the state concluded that the decision to hang him was a message to Kashmiris. The BJP had begun a campaign for his execution in 2012; it was part of their strategy to portray the Singh administration as weak and corrupt, with an eye to the 2014 polls.
(Book excerpt from Paradise At War: A Political History of Kashmir, by Radha Kumar)