Conquering the element of fear: A dangerous disposition

The biggest favour India has done us is remove the element of fear of death and the gun from us. So we don’t care now.” These words were quoted by former Indian foreign minister Yashwant Sinha after meeting a group of youth in Shopian in December last year. And indeed, these words resonate with an encounter between militants and security forces in Kulgam, South Kashmir on February 12. According to a report in Firstpost by Sameer Yasir, youth surrounded the forces involved in a mopping operation in Frisal (Kulgam) from four sides with stones. Gunning for encounter sites is a new phenomenon which has thrown up a major challenge for the forces when it comes to avoiding collateral damage. It has introduced a “daring” generation that takes “pride” in telling a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stalwart like Sinha that they don’t care.

After thousands of people thronged to attend the funeral of four militants killed in the gun battle in Kulgam, the police was forced to repeat the advisory that had been issued for the first time in the last 26 years, on February 18, 2016. “Civilians residing within the radius of two kilometers of an encounter site should stay inside their homes and make sure their children are indoors too. (They) should not venture out as they can get hit by stray bullets. Residents are also requested not to come out of their houses or peep out of windows,” it read, adding that they had requested village elders and headmen to warn people as well. The trend was set when nearly 30,000 people came out for the funeral of a Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Abu Qasim (a Pakistani national) on December 25, 2015 in the same Kulgam area. It heralded a change in people’s perception for militants and also indicated how fast the police was losing grip.

Following his death, it became a trend to attend funerals and it reinvigorated people’s passion to see militants as representatives of their political aspirations. Within the security establishment, though, it rang alarm bells and those at the top were asked to explain how this “sea of people” could be allowed to bid farewell to a Pakistani national, who according to police had only come to bring destruction to the place.

But by the time the police could gear up and exert “control”, this much space had been occupied by those who have been spearheading this movement to own militants. It was a clear departure from the early 1990s when people would run for cover following an encounter. In February 2016, a 48-hour-long gun battle broke out at the Entrepreneurship Development Institute complex at Pampore and for the first time people were seen flocking to the encounter site. Women sang folk songs, paying tribute to militant valour. When bodies were sent back to their homes or in case of foreigners were taken to graveyards for burials, they would apply “mehndi” on them, bidding them a groom’s farewell. This continued for a long time, with each militant killed, and the “heroism” marked by Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on social media gave a new impetus to the armed struggle.

His killing in an encounter on July 8, 2016 demonstrated how powerful his image had grown and the chord he had struck with an ordinary Kashmiri youngster. The aftermath that locked Kashmir into a six-month-long uprising defined a new Kashmir that had become resilient to anything, and that is why the group in Shopian told Sinha they did not care. Burhan stole the show; even Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif mentioned him at the United Nations as the “new hero of Kashmiris”. According to some analysts this “delegimitised” the trio of Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik. Despite the fact that Burhan had triggered a storm that cornered New Delhi on many counts and discredited the current PDP-BJP dispensation in the state as the pellets and bullets rained down, maiming and disabling thousands, this was all actually a culmination of what had been happening in Kashmir for the last year or so. With proposals to do away with the state flag, a ban on beef, the establishment of Sainik and Pandit colonies – came a high level of insecurity among Kashmiris. They were waiting for an opportunity and Burhan’s killing gave them the perfect timing.

Amid a debate of what is in store for Kashmiris in the next few months, comes the incident at Kulgam that took two civilian lives. Rumours are rife that the summer is going to be much like the one of 2016. Who says it and why? There is perhaps no specific answer to that. As with 2008 and 2010, the happenings in 2016 have also presented a lesson for both the people and the leadership. There is no denying the fact that the killing of innocent civilians has to be mourned. But political and armed struggle must be differentiated. When sentiment is overwhelming, sometimes it seems impossible to suggest that the leadership should take its own stand when chalking out a course of action that does not inflict self-harm. That, however, does not mean that only emotions should lead the movement. One important lesson is on how to call off the unending calendars of protest. Should the leadership give a handle to the state to enjoy the discontentment in the wake of those calendars? Leadership has the confidence of the people that needs to be used in following a right course.

The way the people have accorded social sanction to militancy is the writing on the wall. It is for New Delhi to see which way Kashmir is going. Unless the violence and the counter-violence suit it in the context of the fact that Kashmiris are against India then it may be for only people to face the outcome. New Delhi certainly does not have a grip on them as the people have since moved away from the idea of reconciliation. It needs lot of effort and above all sincerity to reach out to people with an idea to pursue dialogue. As of now, the BJP government in Delhi has not shown any inclination towards outreach, perhaps knowing that the huge armed setup would do its job. But politics is at the centre of the Kashmir problem and running away from it has already shown that violence is a way and it does not deter people from being part of it. It is a dangerous way to think about solutions through violence alone but the other side would also have to step back. For Narendra Modi, Jammu and Kashmir may be just another state but it is not. Kashmir is part of a great game that is unfolding in the region with Russia, China, the US, Afghanistan, Pakistan and, of course, India being part of it. How long will you justify the pellets against youth and it is not easy to get away with these violations every time.

On February 12, after guns went silent and photographs of the funeral of militants killed in Frisal encounter were posted on Rising Kashmir’s official social media account, within two hours the views had crossed the 450,000 mark and the content was widely shared. As a sign of the new tide of militancy in Kashmir marked by huge participation of people in militants’ funerals – it should remove doubts and reservations of those basking in complacency convinced that all is well and taken care of.