Open Essay

The Captives of Kashmir

Sumantra Bose is professor of international and comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His most recent book is Secular States, Religious Politics: India, Turkey, and the Future of Secularism (Cambridge University Press, 2018)
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The Valley beyond the politics of victimhood

BURHAN WANI IS being described, in Indian and international media alike, as a ‘Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander’. The appellation of ‘commander’ rings with gravitas and carries connotations of seriousness and seniority. The armed group to which he apparently owed allegiance, and which is usually referred to in Jammu & Kashmir as ‘HM’ or ‘Hizb’, has an impressive-sounding name as well: ‘warriors of the faith’.

However, all indications suggest that Wani may never have participated in, let alone led, any operation against Indian ‘occupation forces’ during his six years as a ‘freedom fighter’. Insurgency is not a theoretical field of study; after the basic training in handling weapons and explosives, one can only become proficient in the craft by doing it. With negligible—if any—experience of actual combat, it is not surprising that the young man was seemingly unable to offer any resistance when he was cornered and gunned down. Accounts of the incident near Kokernag in the southern part of Kashmir Valley that led to his death do not speak of a ‘gun-battle’, nor do there appear to have been any casualties among the men who cornered him.

A quarter-century ago, another youth in his early twenties with the surname, Wani, died in a violent encounter with Indian forces. Ashfaq Majid Wani was a pioneer of militancy in Kashmir. A grassroots volunteer of the Muslim United Front (MUF)—an implausible amalgam of opposition groups united by shared discontent—in the J&K Assembly election of March 1987, he was arrested after the election and spent nine months in custody, partly in solitary confinement. When he was released, he apparently had cigarette burns on his body.

Ashfaq was killed quite early in the insurgency that the organisation he joined in 1988, the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), launched in the Valley. Although his insurgent career was short, he was a veteran of numerous operations—and of several perilous journeys across the Line of Control (LoC) and back, including at the height of winter—when he died. On 30 March 1990, the boy from an upper middle-class Srinagar family was cornered in a hideout in the old city. He engaged his pursuers in a fierce gun-battle. The encounter ended when a grenade he was about to lob exploded in his hand. Some 500,000 people accompanied him to his burial in the then new ‘martyrs’ graveyard’ in Srinagar’s Eidgah neighbourhood, a turnout on par with Sheikh Abdullah’s funeral in 1982.

Burhan Wani’s funeral also attracted a sizeable crowd in the tens of thousands. But in contrast to the formidable guerrilla Ashfaq became, and whose posthumous reputation rests on real- world exploits, Burhan’s aura seems to have been built around hyper-energetic activity in the virtual world, a stream of consistently dashing self-‘pics’ on Facebook in particular. His apparent Facebook addiction is typical of his generation, of course, and he is also a typical 21st century social media celebrity. My intention is not to mock him or his convictions. He is clearly yet another victim of the continuing tragedy of Kashmir. His death—which was possibly avoidable—at a tender age is a matter of regret, and I can only imagine the grief of his parents at the loss of a second child (after his brother). His primary role nonetheless seems to have been that of a tool deployed to recruit others of his generation. This concerted effort over several years resulted in only a few dozen recruits at best, and even fewer if those whose conversion proved transient are excluded. A celebrity student-cum-activist at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has hailed him as the ‘Che Guevara’ of our times. Guevara, true, was more a romantic revolutionary and itinerant adventurer than a serious political leader, but the comparison is still an insult to Guevara’s memory.

Burhan Wani’s aura seems to have been built around hyper-energetic activity in the virtual world, a stream of consistently dashing self-‘pics’ on Facebook in particular

Perhaps the recourse to cyber-warfare, as distinct from the real thing, was unavoidable in Burhan’s case. The Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM), to which he proclaimed allegiance, barely exists on the ground in J&K today. This is a far cry from its peak in the mid- 1990s when HM had several thousand heavily armed fighters operating in the Valley, as well as in some areas of the Jammu region. The group was formed in late 1989 with the war-cry ‘Kashmir banega Pakistan!’ (Kashmir will become Pakistan) to counter the meteoric rise in the Valley of the JKLF and its definition of azaadi: an independent state covering the territory of the 1846-1947 princely state.

In the early 1990s, Yusuf Shah alias Syed Salahuddin, a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami—a fundamentalist movement with branches in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (where its members were the chief collaborators of the Pakistani army’s reign of terror in 1971)—became HM’s head at the intervention of the Pakistani military’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). A village schoolteacher like many Jamaat cadres—I remember visiting his village, Soibugh, in the ‘Sunni belt’ of Budgam district two decades ago—he had stood as an MUF candidate from Amirakadal in downtown Srinagar in the March 1987 election. He has been an absentee commander almost since the time of his appointment and resides as a long- term expat in the neighbouring country (Muzaffarabad and Rawalpindi), where he occasionally surfaces to give monotonous media interviews.

Drawing on unstinting support from its ISI patrons and the Jamaat network in rural areas, and capitalising on the JKLF’s decimation by late 1993 by Indian counter-insurgency forces, HM rose to dominate the Kashmir insurgency. Its behaviour increasingly inspired fear, and then loathing, among the population. Between 1992 and 1994, several leading independence-minded Srinagar citizens were murdered by HM gunmen. Then, in mid-1994, HM gunmen killed the mirwaiz (head cleric) of the southern Valley, Qazi Nissar, in his home near Anantnag; the mirwaiz of the northern Valley, Maulvi Farooq, a pro-Pakistan figure, had already been killed by the HM in his Srinagar home four years earlier. Other notable HM victims included the eminent octogenarian Maulana Masoodi, a top National Conference figure till 1953 and then a leader of the Abdullah-loyalist Plebiscite Front into the 1970s. He was shot dead in his home in Ganderbal, a town north of Srinagar, in late 1990. But it was Qazi Nissar’s murder that catalysed growing public anger and marked a turning point in the Kashmir insurgency. Just before he died, Nissar, an MUF leader in 1987, had publicly ‘accused HM of holding Kashmir to ransom, to hand over to Pakistan on a plate’. At his 100,000-strong funeral, mourners chanted ‘Hizb-ul-Mujahideen murdabad!’ (May HM die) and ‘Jo maangega Pakistan, usko milega kabristan!’ (Those who ask for Pakistan will get the graveyard), alongside ‘Hum kya chahtey? Azaadi!’ (What do we want? Freedom).

The HM’s decapitation campaign targeting leading Kashmiri figures was paralleled by a widespread terror campaign at the grassroots level. I recall meeting a middle-aged working-class man in Ganderbal in 1995. Visibly traumatised, he expressed fury not—to my surprise—at the Indian Army, BSF or CRPF, but towards HM. It transpired that HM militants had damaged a local ziyarat—the mausoleum and shrine of a Sufi saint—after dubbing it as unIslamic heritage. The man’s two brothers started to repair the damage and were shot dead by HM. After the JKLF leader Yasin Malik declared a ceasefire upon his release from prison in mid-1994, several hundred surviving JKLF cadres were hunted down and killed by Indian forces, mostly acting on information provided by HM.

THE ASCENDANCY OF HM actually marked the beginning of the downfall of the home-grown Kashmiri insurgency. The backlash to its brutality played directly into the hands of the Indian counter-insurgency apparatus. In 1995, the first groups of ‘renegades’ or ‘counter- insurgents’ emerged in the Baramulla and Anantnag districts; the phenomenon spread across the Valley in 1996. These were erstwhile members of JKLF, various other tanzeems (armed groups) that had mushroomed during the first half of the 1990s, and HM defectors who sought protection from and revenge against HM (as well as financial and other rewards) by collaborating with Indian security forces. During the second half of the 1990s, a prolonged bloodbath ensued between HM and these men, who operated under the wing of the Army’s Rashtriya Rifles (RR) units and the Special Operations Group (SOG) of the J&K police, later re-named the Special Task Force (STF). The HM killed renegades and their family members and supporters. Renegade squads murdered hundreds of Jamaat-e-Islami cadres, and the slaughter opened up rifts in both the Jamaat and the HM, which culminated in high-level splits in the HM in the early 2000s. The brutal war of attrition eventually broke up the HM; for nearly a decade now, its presence and activity have been minimal. As the HM declined, the fidayeen campaign of full-frontal suicidal assaults was launched, in 1999, by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (as well as, initially, the Jaish-e-Mohammad), and peaked in the early 2000s. But that too more or less petered out nearly a decade ago, after causing much trouble and nuisance to Indian forces for several years.

To be sure, numerous HM cadres died over the years bravely fighting Indian forces, often refusing to surrender in hopeless situations. The group remained organically linked to the Jamaat (and to the ISI), but during its prime, its recruits came from a more diverse spectrum, including staunchly National Conference-supporting rural families. But the memories that HM evokes in the Valley are primarily negative—the lethal violence it practised against fellow Kashmiris, which led to the murderous Kashmiri- against-Kashmiri war that is perhaps the single darkest chapter of that society post-1989.

It’s now fashionable among some to side with the ‘Kashmiri narrative’ of abuse and oppression. Unfortunately, much of this rather belated solidarity is as uninformed as the condemnation that preceded it

This is the history of the discredited, decimated outfit that young Burhan became an internet poster boy for, and it’s not surprising that his Facebook recruitment efforts were rather a flop in terms of tangible results. There are a few one-time strongholds in the Valley where the group is viewed more positively, to some extent in the environs of the northern Valley town of Sopore, but above all in Tral, Burhan’s hometown in the southern Valley, where he was carried to the graveyard wrapped in the Pakistani national flag.

UNREST AND CIVILIAN deaths at the hands of the forces of law and order have been a recurrent feature of life in the Valley since July 1931, when 22 protestors were killed by the princely state’s police in Srinagar. Consider this account from August 1953: ‘On our way to Srinagar [from Anantnag] we passed through Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama, and saw the people’s angry, rebellious mood’. At a graveyard in Kulgam, crowds were burying people killed in police firing. ‘In Shopian we faced a graver situation… a 20,000-strong crowd menacingly surged towards where we were staying, to attack us…Srinagar was in chaos’. This is from the 1992 memoirs of Syed Mir Qasim, a National Conference leader who sided with the ‘pro-India’ coup against Sheikh Abdullah in 1953 and later rose to become J&K’s Chief Minister from 1971 to 1975. Or, as Prem Nath Bazaz wrote about the mass unrest triggered in the winter of 1963- 64 by the temporary disappearance of the Prophet’s holy hair from Srinagar’s Hazratbal shrine: ‘[Maulana] Masoodi and [Ghulam Mohiuddin] Karra warned against violence… both did wonderful work pacifying excited Muslim crowds during the critical days when a small mistake could have soaked the Valley in blood’. More recently, there were the massive pro-azaadi demonstrations of the early 1990s, with many hundreds killed in firing by Indian paramilitary forces.

The events of 2008, 2010 and 2016 have a very long back- story, with grievance and anger transmitted from generation to generation. The psychologically damaged and/or physically maimed survivors of the interrogation centres and army camps of the 1990s—they are the ‘lucky’ ones—have now been joined by peeping children blinded by the ‘non-lethal’ pellet guns of the CRPF.

The people of the Valley are victims—of India and Pakistan as well as of their own ilk. But a victimhood syndrome that alternates between self-pity and angry outbursts—and in an extreme form takes the narcissistic, nonsensical path young Burhan chose—is also a dead-end. Nor are they the only victims. I got to know India in the course of frequent travels throughout the Valley, as well as the war-zones of the Jammu region (Doda, Kishtwar, Rajouri and Poonch) during the 1990s and the first few years of this century. Normally I would have had to travel the length and breadth of India to meet men of so many regions and backgrounds, but in J&K, I encountered paramilitary and army personnel from every part of the country: Nagaland to Maharashtra, West Bengal to Tamil Nadu, Bihar to Karnataka. I would come across them at aggressive checkpoints, sometimes miserable and forlorn in net-covered city bunkers or else engaged in dangerous ‘road-clearing’ foot patrols in remote rural terrain, and occasionally when the urban neighbourhood or village where I happened to be was subject to a sudden ‘crackdown’ (cordon-and-search operation). I gradually realised that they were victims too, ordinary, usually decent men born into poverty with livelihoods to earn and families to support back home. They typically understood little or nothing of the society and the conflict they found themselves in the midst of, except that most of the population manifestly hated them. That generation has now been replaced by a younger generation of equally hapless and frightened enforcers.

A victimhood syndrome that alternates between self-pity and angry outbursts—and in an extreme form takes the narcissistic, nonsensical path young Burhan chose —is also a dead-end

Two decades ago, any sizeable chunk of mainstream India found it hard to accept that the anger of Kashmiri Muslims had sound reasons. It was simply Pakistan’s ‘proxy war’, the argument went, which these Kashmiris were fighting. Even a decade ago, Indian voices that argued otherwise were relatively rare. Since then, in what one might call the post-insurgency decade, there has been something of a sea-change, at least in parts of metropolitan India. It’s now not just acceptable but fashionable among some to side with the ‘Kashmiri narrative’ of abuse and oppression. Unfortunately, much of this rather belated solidarity is as knee- jerk and uninformed as the condemnation that preceded it. All too often, it pays no heed to the extraordinary complexities of the conflict—the fractured and fractious politics of the Valley; the inter-regional diversity of J&K, in which clear majorities in Jammu and Ladakh identify with India; the complicated cross- LoC aspect (Pakistan’s part of the former princely state is almost evenly split between independence and Pakistan supporters); and last but hardly least, the historical and ideological depth of the sovereignty dispute over the erstwhile princely state between India and Pakistan. The fashionista partisans of Kashmiri ‘freedom’ in India are often as empty as Burhan Wani in substantive terms.

Nonetheless, the Kashmir issue is—to use two worn but valid clichés—both a festering sore and India’s Achilles’ heel. A festering sore turns septic if left unattended, and an Achilles’ heel is a perennial weak spot that enemies can exploit to their advantage. Here the 2015 ‘agreement on alliance’ between the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) indicates the way forward: ‘The purpose of this alliance is to catalyse reconciliation and confidence-building within and across the LoC…[to] widen the ambit of democracy through inclusive politics… [and to] create conditions to facilitate the resolution of all issues…[So] the coalition government will facilitate and help initiate a sustained and meaningful dialogue with all internal stake-holders irrespective of their ideological views…[and] will seek to establish a broad-based consensus on the resolution of all outstanding issues… [moreover] as the [Union] government has recently initiated several steps to normalise the relationship with Pakistan, the coalition government [of J&K] will seek to support and strengthen that approach…[and] the same will be pursued through enhancing people-to-people contact across the LoC [by] encouraging civil society exchanges [and] taking travel, commerce, trade and business across the LoC to the next level’.

In a book published in 1980, a British author, ‘born in Calcutta, India, in 1919’ wrote about the then seemingly intractable conflict in and over Northern Ireland, now more or less resolved in the 21st century, the freak anomaly of Brexit notwithstanding: ‘History is indeed a difficult prison to escape from…Yet change is the business of history… Having traced the foundations on which the prison was built…[one] can only wait and hope to see British and Irish alike one day walk away’. Likewise, one can only wait and hope, in intezaar, for the day when the Valley will no longer be a prison for its people, and, in the words of the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali, the other captives, ‘The soldiers, return the keys, and disappear’.