Fire and Ice in Kashmir

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As the LoC flares up, the Valley calms down

ON A CLEAR summer day, the blue water of the Kishanganga is a sight to enjoy. The crisp and somewhat cool air adds to the mix. Ghulam Rasool, however, has no such luxury. As an elder of Chorwan, the last Indian village in the northern part of Gurez valley before India’s Line of Control (LoC), he has much else on his mind. “Here in Chorwan, life is all about preparing for the winter,” he says, “In the few months of summer that we get, we have to prepare for the seven to eight months of harsh winter. There is little time for anything else.”

Chorwan is almost at the edge of the Gilgit-Baltistan area of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). The language spoken here is a Gurezi dialect of Shina, a language that bears little resemblance to Kashmiri. These days, the 300-odd residents of the village have more to worry than the impeding winter. Since the terrorist strike on an Indian Army base in Uri on 18 September and India’s surgical strikes on terror launch pads at different places in PoK, the fear of war has unnerved everyone in Chorwan. The village lies on a mountain slope with a Pakistani military post just 300 metres above the village. An Indian military post is nearby, but that is cold comfort.

“From 1999 to 2004, until the ceasefire agreement with Pakistan, guns boomed daily here,” says Rasool, “During the Kargil War, the sky was thick with enemy shelling. One person died and others were injured. The entire village had to run and hide for a long time behind whatever rock or crevice we could find.”

In these far reaches of Bandipora district, one of the three frontier districts of Northern Kashmir—Kupwara and Uri being the other two—the Army doesn’t just have to fend off enemy gunfire, it also has another constant headache: infiltration. The unique geographic features of the region make this an everyday possibility. The highest point in the local sub-division of Gurez is Razdhan. Located at the very top of a high meadow, this point is not far from the Machil valley in neighbouring Kupwara district, infamous for its wave upon wave of terrorist infiltration from PoK, barely a few kilometres away. Regular patrolling has reduced the menace to an extent, but the terrain is such that no vigilance can block it off. If Bandipora is a dangerous place in North Kashmir, Kupwara is worse. With its upper reaches just as remote, the district has seen a steady stream of infiltrators, making it even harder for the Army and J&K’s Mehbooba Mufti government to maintain peace in India’s northern-most state.

Terrorists sent from Pakistan are adding fuel to the fire in the Valley. Much of the recent turmoil here was of Pakistani making. While Kashmiri stone pelters are of Indian origin, those who urge them on—be it religious preachers in South Kashmir or secessionists in Srinagar—typically act at the behest of their patrons in Islamabad. No speeches on human rights or blaming the J&K government can wipe out the evidence that points in that direction.

On 8 July, Kashmir erupted in an orgy of violence that is abating only now. The death of Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist Burhan Wani at the hands of security forces allegedly uncorked pent up frustrations in the Valley. The popular explanation of what has happened there over the last three months is simple. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) betrayed the mandate of Kashmiri voters when it formed the state government in a post-poll alliance with the BJP, which swept Jammu. In this narrative, Wani’s death was a mere trigger for the frustration that had been building up since 1 March 2015 when Mufti Mohammad Sayeed became Chief Minister; by bringing the BJP into J&K’s governing coalition for the first time, his PDP shrunk the ‘grey’ space between secessionist politics and Indian nationalism. The original proponent of this claim is the PDP’s co-founder, Tariq Hamid Karra, who defeated Farooq Abdullah to win from the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency in 2014, and recently quit both the party and Parliament. “At this time, no political formation is relevant in Kashmir,” he tells Open. “In 2008 and 2010, both the PDP and the National Conference (NC) had left some political space for the Hurriyat and Syed Ali Shah Geelani to withdraw the agitation, however slow that process was… Since 2015, that space has been closed. Even if the Hurriyat and Geelani want to withdraw, they cannot.”

However, since early September—when protests in Srinagar and other parts of Kashmir peaked—stone pelting has become an anarchic sport with no political connotation. In many of the Valley’s ‘shooting alleys’, places where stone pelters rule the roads, the ‘action’ depends on when the ‘boys’ get up, have their meals, rest and sleep. The periods in between see stones being showered on state highways. Truck drivers, cab owners and travellers have adjusted to this routine in innovative ways. Most of them travel only at night, between 8 pm and 6 am. “For almost two months, my home was subjected to a daily round of stone fire. The schools were closed and these boys did little else,” says Sajad Hussain Ganaie, deputy commissioner of Bandipora.

Kashmir is experiencing a breakdown of social order, one that has little to do with politics. Much of what is taken for granted elsewhere in India doesn’t exist in Kashmir. Consider, for example, two key aspects of life: parenting and schooling. Usually, parents are expected to keep tabs on where their children come and go. Education is more than just the learning of lessons to pass exams and has a lot to do with the inculcation of what is wrong and what is right. With parents looking the other way and the school system in collapse, the task has been taken over by mosques and seminaries, many of which preach fundamentalism and fill children’s minds with their own version of ‘commanding right and forbidding wrong’. The result is that hurling stones and ‘engaging’ the security forces is seen as right and abiding by the law as wrong. It is those in the age group of 14-23 who form the bulk of the secessionists’ cannon fodder.

With Geelani and the Hurriyat safely indoors at home and parents doing little to control their kids, anarchy reigned in Kashmir for almost three months. Once secessionist leaders lost influence over the crowds, religious preachers in rural South Kashmir took over. When Open catches up with a few of these ‘boys’ in Srinagar’s old city, they are at a loss to explain what they were doing. “We just followed the ‘protest calendar’. We know nothing will come of this. But since everyone here is doing this, so are we,” says one ‘protestor’ who has an attempt-to-murder charge on him and has been detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA). His age: 17 years.

That phase of chaos is almost at an end now.

Fridays are not an easy time anywhere in Kashmir. This is all the more so for the seat of power in the state, Srinagar. No sooner do muezzins issue their call for noon prayers from the many mosques that dot the landscape—and the old city has many Salafist ones—than the administration goes into a tizzy. From the western shores of the Dal Lake to Batmaloo in the old city, and from the edge of Rajbagh all the way to Nawakadal in the northern corner of the city, the police and CRPF brace themselves. Routine calls for ‘Chalo Lal Chowk’ (the city’s protest central) or ‘Chalo idgah’ or for a march to some other place are followed by skirmishes with security forces and other forms of violence. Soon afterwards, the entire city erupts in a frenzy. For its part, the administration blocks all mobile communications.

IN CONTRAST, THE last two Fridays have been calm in Srinagar, with little or no trouble reported. On 30 September, Lal Chowk wears a deserted look with no single protestor in sight. Only a handful of policemen look around, alert but unconcerned about people who just pass by. There is a curfew on, officially, but it is pretty relaxed. “A month ago, a Friday would have 100-odd incidents; [but on 30 September], there were just 10 such incidents. Even a month ago, the crowds at funerals and in rural areas during an operation would be huge. They are much smaller now,” says a government official.

That claim was in evidence on 1 October at the funeral of a stone pelter, Muzaffar Ahmed Pandit, at Chak-e-Kawoosa village, some 20 km west of Srinagar. Instead of huge crowds numbering in tens of thousands that have been attending burials (for example in South Kashmir), just a thousand-odd people showed up.

Even as the city and the districts of South Kashmir slowly return to normalcy, what took so long for the state government to control the situation is a question that still needs an answer. While ministers are uneasy answering queries about the breakdown of law and order in the Valley, one member of the Mehbooba Mufti cabinet, who does not wish to be named, offers an explanation of what went wrong and what the government finally got right. “There are two ways to cure an ailment, allopathic and homeopathic. In this case, the allopathic cure was to use force within a short span of time and end the protests. In a situation like this one, there is a window of seven days or so in which you can use force and end the protests and minimise the casualties and injure as few people as is realistically possible,” the minister tells Open. “The other way is to let the protests run their course. In my opinion, the protests peaked around a month ago—5 September or so. Now the people are introspecting,” he adds.

In a carefully worded answer, the minister says the state government was in a quandary over how to handle the protests when they started on 8 July. The use of heavy force could have established administrative control much earlier, but that could have led to tension being bottled up for a bigger eruption later. In the end, it was decided to let the agitation run its course, as peacefully as was possible under the conditions that prevail in J&K.

This line of reasoning, however, has few takers. Neither were the protests quelled with force, nor were they peaceful. What took place was a middle—or muddled, rather—course of action. The police and the CRPF ended up causing the death of 80 persons and injuring thousands of others.

“Governments have a very unenviable task in managing difficult situations. We are trying our best,” says Sajjad Lone, the state’s minister for welfare and science and technology, speaking to Open.

All Indian states are tough to govern, but J&K is particularly so. Even at the best of times, peace is not a natural condition, but more the outcome of a delicate equilibrium between external circumstances (read: Pakistan despatching terrorists) and internal trouble, including the kind stirred up by home-grown militants, stone pelters, Hurriyat leaders and others. In the chaotic decade between 1990 and 2000, the state was in a losing battle with both, until the Army stepped in. What followed was a classic pattern of how an insurgency is tackled in an Indian state: the Army managed matters until the state police came up to speed. This is what was seen in Punjab, Assam and Mizoram. The Special Operations Group (SOG) of the J&K Police—probably one of the most lethal civilian anti-terrorist forces in India today—now manages routine security operations. The CRPF does the rest.

There is, however, a danger of history repeating itself. The situation in South Kashmir, before it went ‘out of bounds’, is an example of what happens when a government’s attention gets divided. That record provides some clues to what has gone wrong in the recent past and what may happen in the future if matters are not appropriately addressed now.

By the late-1990s, the terrorist group Hizbul Mujahideen was largely eliminated as a force in the Valley by a combination of counter-insurgents like Kuka Parray, careful intelligence gathering and its integration with anti-terrorist operations. By 2000, the group was a spent force and so was its political front, the Jamaat- e-Islami Kashmir, or JeI(K). After 2000, JeI(K) claimed that it had reverted to being a ‘socio-religious’ organisation and nothing else. In these years, security forces had their hands full fighting other militant outfits like the Lashkar-e-Toiba. The Hizbul Mujahideen and JeI(K) were all but forgotten in the last 15 years despite warnings that they were regrouping.

That fear has largely come true now and it could not come at a worse time and place for the Mehbooba Mufti government. One government official tells Open that about two years back, the JeI(K) openly began taking ‘ownership’ of militants in South Kashmir. For example, its cadres started asserting themselves at the funerals of militants, issuing press releases on such occasions, and exercising influence over the religious preaching being done in the region’s countryside. It was also in this period that security forces noticed that violence by terrorists followed a set pattern. When the movements of militants were mapped against incidents of stone pelting and destruction of public property and infrastructure, it was clear that the three went together.

The minister who does not wish to be named admits that Pakistan had managed to establish sway over a large number of people in South Kashmir. “It is true that we did not pay sufficient attention to the intelligence [inputs] available to us,” he says.

The trouble with intelligence reports is that they do not come in the form of flaring signals. For example, there was no single ‘big’ warning that Kashmir was headed for a summer of discontent this year. But there were plenty of inputs available which, if they had been pieced together by the state government, could have alerted it to what was coming. Consider the following:

- The large number of people who gathered at the funeral of terrorist Abu Qasim in October last year in Kulgam district.

- The virtual threat put out by the maulana of the mosque in Newa, Pulwama district, in mid-April this year when he said that security forces should remove their camp from Newa or face protests by people of neighbouring villages who would gather in large numbers on the roads.

- The ‘Handwara incident’ in April this year when a teenaged girl alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a security man, only to retract her statement later. The protests that followed led to the death of three and left many others injured.

In addition, the state government was hesitant to act against a number of law-breakers whose misdeeds the local police had informed the authorities of. In themselves, these incidents say nothing about an impending storm, but when pieced together they tell a different story.

BEYOND A POINT, it is unfair to blame the state government for what has happened. The premise of the PDP-BJP alliance was that J&K could function like any other Indian state. When Karra questioned Mufti Mohammad Sayeed about the BJP tie-up, the late Chief Minister gave the kind of answers one would expect of a politician who has to manage a state in a far-flung corner of India. The state’s need for the Union Government’s help and cooperation was the principal reason for the alliance, although Karra tells Open that he did not agree with this logic. But Mufti’s argument gets credence from the fact that almost all parties that came to form a government in J&K have sought the Centre’s support. Both Farooq and Omar Abdullah cooperated with Congress-led governments in New Delhi, as did the PDP. In that sense, there was nothing unusual about the party’s alliance with the BJP. The PDP has done exactly what many other parties in states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and others have done at different times.

As the summer of gloom recedes, there are ‘green shoots’ visible in Srinagar and other parts of the state. It is heartening to see small kids practise football at Bakshi Stadium, excited at the prospect of participating in the I-League 2nd Division. Many children who come to play here live in parts of the old city where violence leaves room for little else. In the city’s Shia-dominated Rainawari locality— subject to periodic outbursts of stone throwing—a group of young professionals has opened a makeshift school where each teaches a group of students from classes VIII to XII subjects they are comfortable with. By the usual standards, this ‘school’ is modest, but its effect is significant. It has some 400 kids, all of them in an age group vulnerable to being drawn away from blackboards towards slingshots and piles of rocks by the roadside. Here, they are made to read and write. More importantly, they learn to sit in one place. In other parts of India, this would be life as usual. In Kashmir, it is an achievement worthy of applause.