Kashmir, angry youth, militancy and ISIS


The world, Kashmir included, seems to be dreadfully moving along predictable lines with violence, religious radicalization, conflicts, armed insurgency and state repression becoming the norm. It’s ISIS versus drones in the Arab world, triggering a vicious cycle that inspires hatred and divides the world, with powerful states asserting themselves through excessive repression in the name of justice and religiously radicalised groups poisoning minds with indoctrination and perpetuating bloodshed of innocents in the name of serving religion to create terror. In Kashmir, the new generation of youth find glamour and adventure in the gun with a renewed vigour that is lethal and the state continues to be arrogant and more repressive than ever, shrinking space for rationality and informed opinion and dehumanizing the society. Oppression and repression feeds the gun. Stray ISIS flags are on display almost every Friday after prayers.

It is not known whether they are hoisted by some stray sympathizers, some mischief mongers or are just another expression of anger. It is difficult to say whether some of the youth are trying to express their resentment by hoisting the ISIS flags just to attract the attention of the international organizations and news agencies by indulging in such activities or are aiming to invite the wrath and suspicions of the counter-insurgency forces. Meanwhile, debates are in circulation whether the ISIS has some Indian as well as Kashmir connection. There is no evidence to suggest that there is. The chances are unlikely given the inherent differences in the political goals of the ISIS and the goals of the Kashmiri armed rebels. Whether Kashmir has the potential for ISIS finding roots here depends on how Kashmir is dealt with and the internal dynamics of socio-political landscape.

Kashmir has been like a simmering volcano for quite some time. The anger stems from a variety of reasons and the economic discontent is only a fraction of the problem. The cumulative and compounding distress of Kashmiris does not simply emanate from economic reasons, or even unemployment, which both the central and state governments talk about resolving, without doing precious little. At a political level, it stems from a long pending dispute and also from the high scale of human rights abuse and gross injustices that remain unaddressed. More than two decades of repression and torture with abject denial of admitting errors or ensuring a workable legal justice system and in its place the business of branding the victims and the protestors as terrorists, remains at the core of anger and alienation of the people. The anger is triggered mainly by political discontent and the inability of Indian state to engage with the Kashmiris in the years of the peace process for resolving the pending Kashmir dispute.

People opposed the gun culture and reposed faith in the peace process but post 2008 when space for peaceful protests began to be squeezed and met with brutal forms of control, impatience seeped into the Valley. It exacerbated due to a continuing culture of repression, human rights abuse and impunity enjoyed by security forces for killings, tortures, custodial disappearances, rapes and molestations. This anger found an expression in street protests – first completely peaceful and then frilled with stone pelters. By 2010, this anger reached a crescendo when security forces responded to stone pelters with bullets, tear gas shells and pepper sprays, killing 130 youth and maiming and blinding many others. Other than that, there were humiliating crackdowns, raids and arrests, of boys as young as 9 or 10. This ugly face of repression began pushing youth towards the gun and in 2013 when Afzal Guru was executed followed by repressive curfews and arrests, the Valley was a breeding ground for an inferno.

These recent trends brought to centre stage new heroes like Burhan Wani, a top motivator and recruiter, whose tryst with the gun began after he was harassed in the summer of 2010. Burhan epitomizes a new breed of militants, who are educated and politically informed. This is a generation of young men whose knowledge of militancy of ’90s comes in the form of oral or written narratives, a generation that grew up in the years of calm when peace process was awaited and people reposed faith in dialogue and negotiations, which never came. It was a generation that found hope in peaceful means of resistance for which the State refused to offer space, a generation that felt the need of quest for knowledge and have come up with an unbiased sense of history and politics. That knowledge and political conscious was, however, at odds with the restrictive and repressive atmosphere on the ground, encouraging young men to push themselves into an alley and embark on the journey of religious radicalization and the gun. They are pushed into that corner because the ruthless State was unwilling to engage with them meaningfully and address their political aspirations. 

Continuing processes and trends have added as a catalyst in fostering a whole new generation fed on anger, rage and hatred. Refusing to heed the warnings, governments at the state and central level have simply helped hasten that journey with steps that did not ameliorate but exacerbated that rage. The manner in which the increased participation of people in all recent elections have been celebrated by governments and misconstrued as victory of Indian democracy, which exists more in breach and not beyond the simple right to vote, added to the sense of injury. The false narratives, based on half truths, of tulip gardens, robust tourism and smarting business added to the skepticism, even cynicism. If last year’s floods in terms of its handling, the delayed and poor relief and the shoddy media coverage further alienated the people, especially youth, the formation of the government with BJP as partner in ruling alliance in the state proved to be the last straw, as it is seen as a step towards legitimizing the entry of the RSS in the Valley.

The PDP led government, crippled by its alliance partner’s idea of governance and an RSS controlled government in New Delhi, far from recreating its earlier magic of ‘healing touch’ and ‘restriction free atmosphere’ has gone steps ahead of its predecessor in turning Kashmir Valley into a vast prison. Jammu regions’s assertion with an essentially Hindutva flavour since 2008 is yet another contributing factor that inspires reactionary religious radicalisation in the Valley and the mesmerisation with the gun. Internal factors like the weakening leadership of the separatists and the consequent vacuum at the leadership level, despite a strong sentiment for ‘azadi’ and resolution of Kashmir also played a role in gun and fanatic idiom of religion becoming the expression. 

This new trend is dangerous, whichever way it goes. But, it cannot be fought simply militarily. Excessive militarization and repression is a trap that feeds the phenomenon of militancy. The more the latter gets healthier, the lesser the democratic space for protest and unleashing anger, the more fertile the conditions for militancy and armed youth, even with strong doses of sympathy for ISIS. The reasons are obvious and in understanding these lies the remedy.