THE FAMED BLUE SKIES of the Valley are dotted with ominous clouds as I wait with my photographer colleague outside ward No 8 of the worn-down Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS) in Srinagar for Dr Adil Ashraf, president of the resident doctors association. On the wall ahead of us is a warning scribbled in charcoal: ‘Indian media and dogs are not allowed inside.’ We are anxious to meet those wounded in clashes with Indian security forces in the latest round of unrest following the death of 21-year-old militant Burhan Wani seven weeks ago. A photographer and a reporter from the local media wade in and speak to the patients—all of them hit with pellets or stones or beaten up by the forces. Political Science student Javed approaches us and asks brusquely if we are from the ‘Indian media’. He softens once we say we are here to meet Dr Ashraf. Javed then goes on to present the Kashmiri point of view, and a slight argument ensues. I offer that the Indian media isn’t merely a few TV channels, and I list articles that are contrary to his claims of “one-sided propaganda”. As it turns out, he is far more tolerant than others, and ready to listen as well as offer pointers on how 2016 is different from 2008 or 2010, the last two times that the Valley had flared up. The 2010 protests, which followed the death of 17-year-old Tufail Mattoo in police firing, left around 120 people dead. About two years before that, at least 70 were killed in protests against a proposed transfer of land to the Amarnath shrine board.
What Kashmiris usually say about top Indian officials and media personalities has always been provocative, to put it mildly, but for many in the strife-torn Valley, the “biggest villains who represent the ‘Indian state’ are Prime Minister Narendra Modi, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and a high-profile TV anchor”, all of whom, they claim, are symbols of the ‘Hindu fascist-political-security-media complex’. Ishaq Beg from Kullar in Anantnag district, one of the hotbeds of the current round of insurgency, holds that view, as do a number of academics. Aijaz Nazir, who is from South Kashmir, insists that the Centre should shed its Goliath-like posturing and engage in talks. “Indian TV channels seem to be engaging in debates unrelated to the situation on the ground here. They are probably doing it to please the political classes. For any progress, all-party meetings are a welcome move, but not if they don’t invite the real powers here who can make a difference, the Hurriyat Conference,” says Beg, referring to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s two-day visit to the state capital on 24 August. All factions of the Hurriyat, for their part, have refused to play the role of ‘peacemaker’. The protestors this time have warned even a hardliner like Syed Ali Shah Geelani not to ‘betray’ the cause the way they allege he did in 2010 when he issued an appeal for calm. It seems as if even the pro-Pakistan ideologue Geelani is only playing catch-up with the crowds, a mass protest that appears leaderless.
As we talk, Wasim, a fiery, bearded volunteer of Morawat Centre, an NGO that is helping injured protestors and others caught in the crossfire avail of medical help, raises his voice and says, “If you are from Delhi or any part of India, you had better leave. We don’t like you here.” Javed intervenes for our sake to say that we are waiting for Dr Ashraf. Wasim relents and says, “Please go in.”
I take the risk of humouring Wasim following his sudden change of composure, saying I saw the warning outside, which was why I didn’t want to venture in without permission. He smiles and retorts that even the stray dogs of Kashmir, mostly Huskies, are a loved lot. “So the expression ‘dog’ is only for effect. It is the Indian media that is the object of hate here,” he guffaws with unexpected warmth, and then makes a request. “Please go back to your country and report the truth.” Your country? I ask softly. “Yes brother, the oft-repeated ‘Kashmir is an integral part of India’ is the biggest joke in the history of jokes. Don’t you feel it?” I don’t respond, and so he pats me on the back, urging me to go speak to the injured.
From that moment on, however, we are treated like VIPs though friends and relatives of patients are overly curious about who we are. Some claim their wards were shot with pellets without any provocation. Some say they were caught in the midst of clashes between stone throwers and the forces who threw teargas shells to disperse the mob.
Shahid is an eight-year-old from Budgam, not far from Srinagar. He is in hospital after being hit by stones shot by police slings to control the street unrest. He wasn’t among the stone throwers, vouches a man who claims to be his uncle. As I take down his name and details in my notebook, a youngster behind me says in a polite but firm tone, “Sir, he is not an eight-year-old boy, but an eight-year-old child.” I turn back to see at least half a dozen faces craning their necks to read my notes. I oblige and strike off ‘boy’ and replace it with ‘child’. They hasten to add that the kid had ventured out with a few teenagers when the incident happened. One of those admitted in this ward, a teenager from Shopian, however, admits that he was among the stone pelters and that he did it out of frustration at the trampling of human rights by what he called “occupation forces” in Kashmir.
As we survey the other wards, where the smell of urine and sweat float in the air, and pass by the ICU where women stare at us menacingly, we also come across young people like Firdous and Touseef, all of whom have received eye injuries from pellets, meant to be aimed at the legs, hitting them in the face. According to Dr Ashraf, the forces, which include the CRPF and the J&K Police, have harassed the hospital staff for several weeks while they worked overtime to attend to the critically injured. “Early on, even teargas shells were lobbed inside the premises of SMHS hospital,” he notes.
An Army officer tells me on the phone from Kupwara that pellet guns, also called chaara bandook, were introduced by European hunters. He adds that one needs to be trained well to aim at the legs. “Those who do not have enough experience in using them end up firing indiscriminately. I think that is what happened here. If used properly, it is not fatal, but it is dangerous in the hands of under-trained forces,” he explains, apparently referring to Central Reserve Police Force’s handling of those guns. The pellets, made of metal, were discontinued even by Israel in the occupied territories of Palestine. In Kashmir, they are still in use. As on 25 August, at least 66 people had died in the ongoing bout of unrest, the latest being Aamir Bashir from Pohu village of Pulwama district, who died of pellet injuries following fresh morning clashes between protestors and security forces. More than 470 people have landed in hospitals in Srinagar, especially SMHS, SKIMS and JVMC, with eye injuries alone. Of them, 27 have injuries in both eyes.
One of the SMHS doctors speaks to me on the phone later, and explains why most of them have been sleepless for weeks now, taking care of the injured, whose number simply keeps rising. “We need independence. I used to think there could be a middle path or a solution other than full independence, but not anymore. Why don’t Indians sit up and listen? Why don’t they stop behaving like ostriches burying their heads in sand, and concede there is a problem here? Why don’t they stop blaming Pakistan? Everything here cannot be attributed to Pakistan. I tell you, this insurgency is homegrown. Maybe Pakistan is trying to fish in troubled waters, but that is all. They had better stop being in denial.”
He speaks quickly, passionately and in palpable anger. As someone who has lived as and benefitted from being a ‘mainstream’ Indian, I find myself defensive. We both hang up.
ARIGAM IS A small village in Tral, one of those ‘liberated zones’, as they say in Srinagar. These are areas where the forces no longer patrol and groups of youngsters call the shots. They declare hartals at whim, stop vehicles and search them, force people to go back and often use force against strangers no matter whether they are locals or ‘Indians’. Even Kashmiri journalists fear to tread there and tell outsiders not to even “think about” heading for south Kashmir, on the boil ever since the 8 July killing of son-of-the-soil militant leader Burhan Wani.
The slain Hizbul Mujahideen leader’s home is barely an hour from Srinagar, from where we start off at dawn, driven to the location by a local ‘multi-tasker’. The man, dressed in black, is a chain smoker, a ‘transporter’ (and a steady hand at that), and is closely associated with the media in the state. We don’t face much difficulty along the way as he takes us via the 300 km-long Srinagar-Jammu highway that’s strictly monitored by the Army. We pass Pampore, where the patrolling is even stiffer. On both sides of the road are villages full of ‘overground workers’ (pro-militant residents in military parlance). Armed forces describe the 35-km stretch from Pampore to Bijbehera as a ‘death trap’. In the afternoon of 25 June, Lashkar-e-Taiba militants ambushed a CRPF convoy with grenades and AK-47 guns, killing eight officers and injuring many more. Over the past two years, militant infiltrators from Pakistan have struck at least five times on this stretch of road.
The broad region is famous for saffron cultivation. Our driver weaves through a raft of trucks carrying supplies for the Army. Shortly, we are in Awantipora, where we take in the splendour of the shrines held holy by Muslims and Sikhs: the mazaar of Syed Hassan Mantaqui and the Awantipora gurdwara, respectively.
We also pass by the ruins of a temple before taking a left turn and proceeding towards Tral, which is in Pulwama district, through a narrow road. Before we have quite had enough of the beauty of the Kashmiri countryside dotted with trees across a green expanse of rice fields and apple orchards with unending mountains as a backdrop, we are at our guide’s cottage, close to Arigam. We are served hot milky tea and buttered roti for breakfast. Several rounds of tea are served again, proof of Kashmiri hospitality, especially in its villages.
We are hoping to meet the village’s most sought-after resident: Muzaffar Ahmad Wani, father of Burhan whose killing has inspired the latest round of insurgency in the state. Pakistan’s flag flies atop a mosque opposite the Wani home, just as it does across many parts of Kashmir. I ask a man accompanying us to meet Burhan’s father of the significance of that display. “It is only to provoke the Indian forces,” he says, laughing it off. “Even Balochis are using Modi’s photos and Indian flags in Pakistan,” he adds with a sly twinkle in his eyes.
South Kashmir had seen much less infiltration at the height of Pakistan-sponsored militancy in the 1990s compared with North Kashmir, but of late, insurgency, mostly led by home-grown militants, has surfaced in a big way even as the cry for Azaadi spreads from urban centres to villages. At least two Hurriyat (moderate) leaders and a political observer, all based in Srinagar, that I speak to on the phone tell me that the otherwise piety-obsessed and proselytising sect Tablighi Jamaat has mushroomed in the south and has financed training camps—homegrown ones—spread across four south Kashmir districts with its headquarters in Tral, where Burhan grew up. These districts include Anantnag, Pulwama, Shopian and Kulgam, the last of which has seen a huge wave of unrest and several deaths. Meanwhile, intelligence agencies and J&K Police deny the existence of any such camps in south Kashmir, though they concede that ‘large-scale Islamisation projects’ have had a significant impact in the region. The Hurriyat leader rebuts the official line: “They are bent upon disproving what cannot be disproved, that there are indigenous terror camps in Kashmir. Unless they wake up to what is happening, they can’t counter it.”
A Srinagar resident who offers only his first name Hashim admits that the rise of insurgency in South Kashmir has taken many residents of Kashmir’s summer capital by surprise. “‘How did the axis of such activities suddenly shift south?’ we’ve often asked ourselves in recent weeks. Burhan Wani is perhaps a product of this shift,” he says.
At Burhan Wani’s home, a stone’s throw from his grave, his father Muzaffar Ahmad Wani hugs us and asks us to seat ourselves on a delicately-sewn mat on the floor in a makeshift shed for visitors. We are served homemade biscuits and salted tea. He has had numerous visitors from Kashmir and elsewhere, offering condolences for Burhan’s death. Two of his sons have died at the hands of the forces. Burhan’s older brother Khalid was killed in April 2015. Wani Senior claims that he and Khalid were harassed for years because Burhan was a militant. He also says Khalid was beaten to death by the forces for no reason, a charge they deny.
In death, Burhan Wani has acquired the halo of an iron-jawed symbol of Kashmiri resistance. In death, he has achieved what he could only have dreamt of doing in life: a revival of insurgency. From mere rage, Kashmir is now witnessing scenes of a quasi intifada
At Burhan’s funeral, large crowds had gathered in the compound of his two-storey house, and the boundary wall caved in when people jostled one another for a last glimpse of the slain militant. When Burhan was alive, he was only a glamorous hero of the romance of Jihad. Last September when I visited Kashmir, a Kashmir University student had in an interview foretold the rise and rise of Burhan as the new face of militancy in the state. He already had a bounty of Rs 10 lakh on his head. “He has changed the rules of the game. His video announcements bear an uncanny resemblance to those by the slain Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Besides, he is also imitating the art of war of the Islamic State in connecting with aspiring jihadists through digital platforms, which reinforces the belief that the tactics of militants are evolving faster than most intelligence experts could imagine. Wani is often seen in combat fatigues and with a copy of the holy Qur’an beside him. The media may not write about him. But in Kashmir, he is the one to watch.” (See ‘Return of Rage’, Open, 18 September 2015)
TRUE, BURHAN WANI lived and died by the gun. Now, in death, he has acquired the halo of an iron-jawed symbol of Kashmiri resistance. In death, he has achieved in full measure what he could only have dreamt of doing in life: a revival of insurgency. From mere rage, Kashmir is now witnessing scenes of a quasi intifada (uprising). Although this round of unrest may well peter out over the next months, what is remarkable is that it has endured for several weeks since the killing of Wani, reportedly while he was playing cricket with friends. According to security forces, the encounter lasted three-and-a-half minutes. It was over in a flash. But the powers that ordered his termination had not anticipated the backlash. Aijaz Nazir, who is a Kashmir- based columnist, argues that Burhan was only a trigger for a cycle that insurgency typically follows in Kashmir. A few university students from Srinagar are glad that some of the disparate insurgency groups in the Valley have managed to hold territory—the so-called ‘liberated zones’—much to the pride of those who are fighting for ‘azaadi’ from India.
Burhan’s father never wanted him to become a militant; he wanted his son to be a doctor or an IAS officer. “He was an extremely brilliant student who had scored very high marks from Class 1 to 9,” says this principal of a higher secondary school in Tral. Muzaffar Wani, an MSc in Maths from Kashmir University who had for years taught students of classes 11 and 12 integration and differentiation, says that he found out about Burhan’s inclination to join militancy only after a frank conversation with the then 15-year-old. He tried his best to persuade him not to choose that path, he says. But the boy took up arms after his brother Khalid and a friend were brutally beaten up by security forces.
Two weeks before his Class 10 exams were to start, Burhan left home to become a militant. “We were not aware of where he was going,” the father says. Burhan came home sometimes for short spells, but the last time the father met his son was when Muzaffar’s cousin died in 2014. “We didn’t talk. We just shook hands then,” says Muzzafar, pensively stroking his beard. After Burhan left home in 2011, the forces conducted several raids at his home, he recounts. “Their intention was only to harass us. They knew very well that we had no clue where he was,” he says, emphasising that as a young boy, while he was studying at Government High School at Dadasara, Tral, all that Burhan wanted to become was a national cricketer. “Yes, of the Indian team,” he says. “He was very good at Science besides other subjects.” Then he says that he is proud that his son fought for azaadi, though he had high expectations of him achieving success as an official or a surgeon. “Now the job of running the organisation is on the shoulders of others.”
Tral has become a nerve centre of insurgency. It was in Dadasara village here that Hizbul Mujahideen militant Ishaq Ahmad Parray alias Newton was killed in an encounter with the Army along with two associates not long ago. Asked if the ‘freedom fighters’ of Kashmir can take on the might of the Army and ever achieve freedom, Muzaffar replies, “We trust in God.” Besides his wife Maimoona, Muzzaffar lives with his elderly parents, daughter Iram and son Naveed Alam. He has six years before his retirement from the state Education Department.
In Srinagar, 18-year-old Irfan Fayaz Wani died after being wounded badly by a teargas shell. He had come to Malarata in downtown Srinagar to attend a wedding. Irfan had been named in several cases of destroying public property earlier as well
The popular resentment is evident when we visit Burhan’s grave with Muzzafar. Out of the blue, scores of others turn up to offer tribute to Burhan, who is buried near his brother Khalid, a graduate of Political Science. The crowds soon turn angry and emotional, furiously chanting slogans such as ‘Bolo takbeer Allahu akbar’ and ‘India se azaadi’ among others. Elderly women who have lost sons and grandsons mouth anti-India slogans that are drenched in hatred. Some of those who are gathered here have travelled a long distance to have a word with Burhan’s father; one of them had come 10 times earlier, trying unsuccessfully to meet him.
NOTABLY, FOR CHIEF Minister Mehbooba Mufti, all this is bad news, and is indicative of a huge gap between her government and her party’s traditional support base, south Kashmir. In 16 Assembly seats across Anantnag, Pulwama, Shopian and Kulgam, her People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had won 11 seats in the 2014 state polls. The party came to power with the help of the BJP, which won most Jammu seats, but had to face sharp criticism in the Valley for aligning with Hindu nationalist forces. The desperation of the PDP under the changed circumstances was evident in a statement of PDP leader Muzaffar Baig that “standard operating procedure” was not observed in the operation to kill Burhan. “To my knowledge and reports, the operation in which Burhan was killed was against a ruling of the Supreme Court. The Constitution bench of the apex court, which consisted of five judges and [was] headed by Chief Justice Verma, had given [this] judgment about the standard operation procedure [on] how to carry out an operation even when AFSPA is in force,” he had said, suggesting that since the operation ended so quickly, the militants were apparently not given a chance to surrender. Baig has also said that the six-decade-long conflict in Kashmir is now on the verge of joining a global religious war. A senior PDP leader in Srinagar tells me that Wani was killed in cold blood, and this, instead of capturing him alive, was a ruse of vested interests in India to batter the PDP politically. He refuses to elaborate.
According to a few students of Kashmir University in Srinagar, contrary to a perception that most other Indians have, Kashmiris aren’t only interested in autonomy or freedom, but are also in favour of maintaining closer ties with Pakistan. They also admit that Islam is a big factor now, much more than ever. In an interview to me back in 2015, a PhD student here who was a member of the banned Kashmir University Students Union (KUSU) had said, “Yes, I want democracy. But where is it? In Kashmir? No. Why do you then need over 7.5 lakh [troops] to preserve democracy [in a region of just 7 million]? Welcome to reality: this is sheer occupation.” He had also added that a majority of Kashmiris—75 per cent of the people here are under the age of 35—belong to a generation that was born at the peak of militancy: their attitudes are different from those who grew up in peaceful times.
“This generation has seen their parents being harassed at school playgrounds; they have themselves been sodomised or molested while entering schools by forces in the name of frisking or questioning. They are mostly reckless, if not fearless,” says another university student. News from other parts of India that reeks of a Hindutva agenda—a man in Dadri lynched on suspicion of storing beef at home, the arrest of university students in Delhi and a case against human-rights organisation Amnesty on charges of ‘sedition’ simply for condemning the Government’s stance on Kashmir, for instance—only leaves them convinced that the Centre will never be on their side. And with the PDP having joined hands with the BJP, they can’t trust the state government either.
I wanted Burhan to be a doctor or an IAS officer. He was an extremely brilliant student who had scored very high marks from class 1 to 9
Vegetable vendors at Rambagh talk to me about why many of them turn up in the evenings to throw stones at the forces. “That is a symbolic act. We have to give vent to our deep frustration. The poor handling of post-floods programmes was the first trigger,” says Ghulam, one of them.
Such recklessness is on full display at downtown Srinagar. We survey the old town here, manned by CRPF soldiers during the daytime. Very few civilians are outdoors as there are strict restrictions on the movement of both people and vehicles. From the image of a bustling market place, it is now a ghost town. ‘Go Back India, Burhan Our Hero’, ‘Fuck Indians’ and ‘Indian Dogs Go Home’ are some of the relatively sober graffiti messages on the walls.
Masood, a resident of the Old City, speaks to me about being out of business. He is concerned about the politics of curfews: “Using force has great limitations. They want us to suffer, but we will overcome...” His anger is evident, and before more people can crowd around us, we give in to instinct and leave.
By evening, it is a different sight. We position ourselves not far from Nowhatta Chowk, close to Srinagar’s Jama Masjid, the biggest mosque in the Valley, which has been forced to close its doors to believers. There is complete silence for a while. These are the last few minutes before the forces beat the retreat around 6 pm. What happens next has the macabre tenor of a brutal daily ritual. Troops in uniform prepare themselves with slings and stones, and with teargas canisters. They are all armed with helmets and shields to protect themselves from stones (or petrol bombs, if any) hurled at them. Just before the stone-pelting begins, Rajeshwar Chaudhary, a CRPF officer with 500 men under his command, tells me that without any helmet, our chances of getting hurt in the melee are not low. As the tension rises and this bout of stone hurling begins, I notice that the protestors—teenagers, mostly, one can see—do not flinch even as soldiers hit back with slingshots and teargas shells.
Later, we learn that 18-year-old Irfan Fayaz Wani was wounded badly by a teargas shell, and has died. He had come to Malarata in downtown Srinagar to attend a wedding. He had been named in several cases of destroying public property earlier as well. “Here, anything can happen, young man,” a CRPF officer tells me on seeing my dismay in reaction to the news. He admits, though, that this time things are really out of control. “It has become very prolonged. This couldn’t have happened without much indoctrination,” reasons an intelligence officer.
According to American foreign policy expert Michael Kugelman, who has closely watched Kashmir for years, “There is something very unsettling about this latest round of unrest because the dynamics are in many ways quite different than they were back in the 1990s, when the levels of violence were admittedly greater.” He adds: “Right now, you’re looking at a rebellion impelled purely by local and homegrown grievances, with a level of anger and resentment toward the Indian state that New Delhi appears unwilling and unable to appease, much less address, in a lasting way. It all makes for a very troubling state of affairs.”
Agrees Christopher Snedden, Australian political scientist and Kashmir expert: “I think that Kashmiris are expressing significant frustration and anger with the lack of any significant political progress both recently and historically as regards attempts to resolve the Kashmir dispute. They are displeased with India and Pakistan because neither nation, as Kashmiris see it, seems terribly or genuinely interested in resolving the Kashmir dispute. They are blaming each other while Kashmir and Kashmiris ‘burn’.”
Kugelman offers a note of caution. “You really worry things could at some point spiral out of control. The current round of unrest could well ease in the coming weeks, but that could be a short- term lull. What is so troubling is that Indian authorities, both in Kashmir and in Delhi, seem to be wholly tone-deaf to the concerns of Kashmiris. As the crescendo of violence intensifies, official responses seem to be limited to mere platitudes and the usual promises of development and uplift. Clearly, there needs to be a better plan. Now is the time to explore prospects for some type of dialogue involving key parties and stakeholders, but it’s unclear if the soaring levels of mistrust between Indian officials and Kashmiris can allow for such a conversation anytime in the foreseeable future.”
KASHMIRIS TRY TO cope in their own ways, and have begun holding temporary classes while schools remain shut— in some of them, BSF commandoes have taken shelter, returning to the Valley after 12 years. Clearly, statements from Delhi warning of stern action against protestors are proof that instead of the ‘politics of love’, India is getting increasingly used to deploying fear as a weapon. A Vajpayee-like healing touch of ‘insaniyat’ seems elusive. For a people suffering from a sense of victimhood and alienation— and convinced that India is in denial of this—the signals emanating from New Delhi are no help in calming tempers, unfortunately. The late socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayanan’s warning to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is a stark reminder: “We profess democracy, but we rule by force in Kashmir… we profess secularism, but let Hindu nationalism stampede us into trying to establish it by repression.”
A solution to the vexed Kashmir issue remains a far cry, but what is clear is that further repression of an alienated people will only create more Burhans. The Valley is on the brink. In the absence of earnest reconciliatory moves, this ‘paradise on earth’ could be a hellish proposition for all of India.