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The Return of Rage

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Discontent in Kashmir deepens as the PDP-BJP government loses its way

Naeem Khan can’t leave his house. The police have positioned themselves at the gates of his elegant home in Srinagar’s Ibrahim Colony for several days now, without bothering, as usual, to offer any explanation for his ‘house arrest’. The Hurriyat leader is used to this. This Ramadan, he couldn’t step out of home for almost a month. But then, Khan says, with a tinge of irony, he is glad to get a lot of rest, and time to read and prune trees in his garden. And to talk about Kashmir with people who drop by. “The Valley is seeing a revival of militancy because this time round, we are threatened by efforts of the Centre to change our demography. There is a feeling among Kashmiris that our religion is under attack. Many of India’s recent moves are proof of that intent,” he insists. Khan pauses meditatively when he talks about the “incident in Pattan”— the bullet-riddled bodies of three youths, bearing torture marks, were found on 14 September in the Dangerpora area of Pattan in Baramulla district. While the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) confirmed they belonged to the outfit and alleged that they had been killed by the police, Khan suggests that in conflict areas, such deaths—which he says are slowly becoming rampant once again—happen when there is a spike in militancy or there are signs of it. The Hurriyat called for a strike on 16 September following protests by locals who claimed that the police engineered the deaths of the three young men. The police, meanwhile, claimed inter-militant rivalry was behind the killings.

Elaborating his contention—which officials see as a typical separatist rant—that there is a Central “conspiracy” to thrust a “demographic shift” upon Kashmir, Khan says an anti-Muslim bias exists for all to see. It was most evident in India’s handling of flood rescue operations, he avers, recalling the events of last September. “There was selective rescue of bureaucrats and the troops. It is good that tourists were rescued first. But the rescue of locals was much delayed,” he says, repeating an accusation that had come up a year ago when floods hit the Valley. Khan is ready to forget all that. “But what about relief work? What has gone wrong with the multi-crore special package for development of the state from the Centre [run by a coalition headed by the BJP which is an ally in the state government led by the People’s Democratic Party]?” he asks. Prime Minister Modi was expected to announce a special package for Jammu & Kashmir amounting to Rs 1 lakh crore.

This July, Haseeb Drabu, the state’s finance minister and former chief of J&K Bank, had disclosed that he had held several rounds of talks with Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to give final touches to a federal scheme of nearly Rs 70,000 crore. Several other officials also said that the BJP-led Government’s Kashmir package would be higher than the Rs 36,265 crore pledged by the Congress-led Government back in 2004 for the state’s reconstruction.

Months have passed after Drabu talked of the special Kashmir package, but the Centre has not disbursed the funds yet. In an apparent show of displeasure at the Centre’s dilly-dallying over it, J&K Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed said on 13 September that he was still waiting for the Union Government’s help for the state’s crumbling local economy. Speaking to Open, Drabu concedes that he isn’t surprised that the man on the street is angry with the state and Central governments. “I don’t disagree with them (the people),” says the state finance minister, who adds he cannot “connect” with questions on the state of affairs in Kashmir on a day—14 September—he has been watching Hollywood icons Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson. He blames the state’s previous National Conference government for handling flood relief work shoddily.

The floods have left Srinagar and adjoining areas dirty even a year later. The city is extremely dusty, the result of delayed yet new construction activity. What’s deeply worrying, not just for those in the capital but the entire state, is the decline of the local economy and the lack of support from either the state government or the BJP dispensation at the Centre to help ride out the bad times.

Atiqua, a 36-year-old widowed farmer and mother of two teenagers, is a cheerful woman with a sense of humour and courage. Working at a paddy field at Aarampura in Kashmir, she vents her anger against people she calls “MLAs and ministers”. For several months a year, she has to spend days in the fields to feed her children and take care of her mother Zeba and other relatives who assist her. But lately, she has grown increasingly anxious about what will happen to her sons. Will they get proper jobs? Her niece is an MA-BEd, but is finding it hard to get a well-paid white-collar job, which is the Holy Grail for every educated Kashmiri.

Her worries aren’t irrational, says a well-known professor and an opinion leader in the region who doesn’t want to be named because he fears harassment at the hands of the police due to his past links with militancy. He calls for making recruitment at institutions like J&K Bank more transparent. Job aspirants, he says, resent the opacity of hiring at this organisation to which “the entire valley” applies for jobs. “It is the Kashmiri equivalent of railway board exams. But people are selected through the backdoor,” he complains. While Open couldn’t confirm the veracity of the charge, reports have appeared in the local media of how the bank keeps the entire process under wraps, at least for entry-level positions. The professor says that out of some 60 students in his post-graduation batch, only two end up getting a proper job. The government is doing nothing to improve the job scenario in the state, he says. No research is done to find out what ails the state across sectors, he alleges, because such studies will prove the Centre’s discrimination towards the Valley. Even the research done, say on hydel projects that Open has reviewed, reveals low-quality work. The decline of local small-scale industries, mainly due to government inaction, has only added to the bleak employment scenario— which is helping militants recruit the state’s jobless disgruntled.

“I am worried whether after their education my sons will get a good job,” Atiqua says, “Or will they go away with the fighters?”

Fighters-in-the-making are not hard to find, even among the upwardly mobile. Consider the case of this student who has spent close to 10 years at Kashmir University. Now pursuing a PhD, he is passionate about his political rights and civil liberties. Seated on a lawn near the law department alongside two other students, he talks softly to avoid being heard. He has to be careful because the Kashmir University Students Union (KUSU), of which he is a part, is banned. The members of the student union are also discouraged from meeting reporters or talking politics. They can’t hold conferences or seminars, all seen as unlawful activities. It is not rare that his parents get a call from the police about their son’s whereabouts. If someone informs the police that he has met outsiders, even in the full glare of daylight on the lawn, he is summoned to the police station to explain his ‘misconduct’. Another young man, a friend and comrade of the PhD student, says he was detained and tortured by the police for weeks for a Facebook post against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The clampdown, he says, is complete. The PhD student feels that militancy is back in the Valley because it tends to follow a cycle. He refers to the rise of Burhan Wani, the 22-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) commander, as the new face of militancy in Kashmir. The government has a bounty of Rs 10 lakh on his head.

“See, he lives just 50 km from Srinagar and has been hiring young people through social media,” says Rafeeque, another student of the university, “He has changed the rules of the game. His video announcements bear an uncanny resemblance to those by the slain Al Qaida 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.”

According to reports, Wani, the son of a school principal and a promising student not so long ago, has recruited some 50 young boys from south Kashmir. Now one cannot accuse Pakistan of hiring and training them, warns another university professor in the Valley who was once a militant.

Many of Kashmir’s college students, mostly in their twenties, resent the lack of political freedom and confess that they too are committed to the cause of the militants. What they are asking for is freedom from ‘Indian occupation’ as they term it. “Believe me, this is what the majority of young Kashmiris want. What worsens matters is that the Indian Government and its collaborators (mainstream political parties in Kashmir) are doing nothing for 75 per cent of the young people here who fall below the age of 35, other than lip service,” says the PhD student, rage visible in his eyes. He is no admirer of the Islamic State and its practices, but proudly says that one lesson to learn from the West Asian outfit is how successfully it is “holding territory”. These students seem to think that some of the IS’s strategy could be borrowed for use in Kashmir. “[The] authorities will find it laughable, but then you never know where the vast scope of the internet will take you,” says the first professor.

The anger is palpable among Kashmiris, especially the youth. Close to 50 people this correspondent has met in various parts of Kashmir, including in villages where people welcome you with great warmth, have no sympathy for India. “People are helpless before the might of the [armed] forces, but they are also deeply frustrated because of several factors: lack of freedom of expression of political thoughts, lack of economic opportunities and cultural hegemony,” says Shah Alam, a textile retailer who admits that he might pass off easily as a rabid India hater. “I am not that,” he insists, “I am just aware of my rights that are denied to me.”

For the rest of India, such tough talk is simply unpalatable, especially for government officials. “They should be proud of being part of a democracy instead of a failed state,” says a Srinagar-based police officer who asks not to be named. “Yes, I want democracy. But where is it? In Kashmir? No. Why do you then need 750,000 [troops] to preserve democracy? Welcome to reality: this is sheer occupation,” responds Hameed, a student at the university.

The deep resentment among students and intellectuals is echoed by many other Kashmiris as well, including traders, farmers, doctors, drivers, janitors and restaurateurs. They are less vitriolic, though. In Kupwara’s Ibrahim Market, you don’t hear expressions such as ‘freedom from occupation’ or comparisons of the Kashmir question with the Algerian crisis or parallels with Balkanisation and the formation of new countries like South Sudan, East Timor and so on. Walnut trader Ghulam Mallik, a no-nonsense person prone to laconic responses, simply says, “Khush nahin hain (we are not happy).”

Far from the existential dilemmas of the young and educated Kashmiris, Mallik is concerned with how to do business well and prosper. He has been in despair, especially in the past two decades, after having sensed a “routine” reluctance on the country’s part to help Kashmiri businesses and farmers. In recent years, the indifference has been getting deeper, he says. The state’s walnut trade has been hit by a plethora of factors. It is not that the Centre isn’t aware of the problem, he adds, but it seems to be least interested in addressing the issue. His complaint is that the government is not helping them mechanise walnut production, processing and distribution. Now, they are facing a threat from US walnuts coming to India via Dubai. Since walnut cultivation and processing are still done manually in Kashmir, farmers and traders lose out to import competition. “We can’t offer competitive prices when bigger players from overseas markets can do that. The government has provided no incentive to modernise our business. This is one example of how our state is undermining our entrepreneurial strengths,” he says, emphasising that political meddling extends to all spheres. He fears that such high levels of frustration will lead young people astray.

The plight of saffron growers is similar, perhaps worse. A senior government official admits, “There is too much of cheap quality saffron in the market masquerading as Kashmiri saffron. Most of it comes from Punjab, especially from places like Ludhiana.” What is he doing about it? “Nothing so far. The government has not yet formalised a system to tackle the menace,” he says with regret.

The price that farmers pay for government inaction is quite high. It has broken the back of the Kashmiri saffron industry—the product is also called ‘gold spice’—which is left with no state support to fight fake products. “Imagine, this is happening to one of Kashmir’s flagship products. Do you want me to still believe that India is interested in the welfare of Kashmir and its development?” asks the former militant who is now a college professor.

Tales of woe from traders abound. Malik Mohamad Sultan, a lawyer at the J& K High Court, is of the view that such public policies are resulting in a grave problem: disguised unemployment, which means that several qualified employees are forced into redundant functions, resulting in a massive slide in productivity. Similar sentiments are aired by people such as Mohammed Sultan of Drugmulla who is in the textile business, Fathima Bivi in the Pashmina business, and various others in sectors that range from food products to handicrafts.

Mushtaq Ahmad Tantray, president of Asia’s second- largest apple market in trouble-torn Sopore (home to Hurriyat leaders such as Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Abdul Gani Bhat), which has seen widespread killings and disappearances recently, highlights the lack of interest displayed “by all concerned” in helping the mandi retain its position and attract more sellers and buyers. He has a big problem at hand. More than 20,000 people visit the market every day for three months starting September to buy and sell apples. The government has not allotted land to set up new buildings that have been sanctioned. There’s not a single public toilet in the market. The dust-filled market has lately seen the entry of large quantities of low- quality apples as people use excessive chemicals to preserve their produce. Missing cold-chain facilities also hurt this sprawling market where half of Kashmir’s apples are first sold. “They are sitting on files for re-developing this market—where revenues are only growing despite all odds—by hanging a bad name on us, saying Sopore is a military hot bed,” says Tantray, who claims that it is thanks to the market, which employs a vast chunk of young people in the region, that militancy is kept under check more or less. “If you revamp this market and make it more mechanised, more young people who would otherwise join militant ranks will work for us. We are the biggest employers in this town and we must be encouraged to battle terrorists,” says this trade leader matter-of-factly.

Near the market, I notice some policemen running towards me. For a moment, I fear they want me for talking to locals. Instead, it turns out, they want to air their complaints of being underpaid.

At least a section of traders, students and political pundits that Open spoke to say that the new alliance of the PDP and BJP offered some scope for hope. “After all, PDP was the party that came to power promising a healing touch and great hope in 2002. Though that image has faded over time, the association with the ruling BJP gave entrepreneurs some hope that this could be a welcome change. But with every passing day, both parties are demonstrating that they are an alliance of an anti-Kashmiri dispensation and a group of collaborators who need security provided by the former to stay alive, politically and otherwise,” says a reputed political analyst who didn’t wish to be named, citing “high chances” of harassment by authorities. Interestingly, a majority of the people of the Valley I have spoken to say they have no expectations whatsoever from the PDP-BJP government in Srinagar. For his part, Naeem Khan claims he was sceptical of this arrangement from the beginning, saying that the BJP will push its Hindutva agenda in Kashmir using its ally, the PDP, which will have no choice left: the party can’t leave the coalition because that would amount to political suicide.

Talking to Open, Drabu admits that the alliance was an “unnatural” one and that it may take five years to start showing results, an opinion that is not shared by many others in the party. The state’s finance minister also says that the new ruling alliance “was against the civil society” sentiment. “Unnatural or not, we were expecting quick results because we assumed the BJP was interested in quick results in Kashmir. We were expecting more help from the Centre immediately and the Mufti has made it clear a few days ago,” says a PDP leader, requesting anonymity. Elements in favour of Hindu causes making huge noises about the state’s pre-Independence beef ban, too, have not gone down well with the PDP.

“Now they’re also saying we must get rid of the archaic 1921 law that legalises prostitution in Kashmir and also allows for people to run brothels. The fact is such laws have no bearing in our society now. Nobody uses such laws as a cover. Why rake up such issues if your intention is not to tarnish the image of the only Muslim-majority state in India?” asks Khan, who is also piqued that the Centre is “hell-bent” on creating “townships” similar to those in Israel for Pandits here. Ironically, a large group of Kashmiri Pandits who are living in exclusive settlements in Kashmir held a dharna asking the state and Central governments to send them back to Jammu. These are among the 1,500 people relocated to Kashmir as part of the Prime Minister’s scheme. Their contention now is that they are facing a depressed and isolated life in Kashmir and that they have to fight every day for electricity and water.

“Kashmir is on the boil again,” states Khan, an associate of Shabir Shah. Professor Sumantra Bose, author of Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace, says there is no justification for withholding the post-flood funding, which is both a humanitarian necessity and a confidence-building step. However, he seems to have a different take on the “rise of new kind of militancy” in the Valley. He doesn’t see any resurgence of the HM—which is barely a skeletal remnant of what it was at its prime in the mid-1990s—but the waning of the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s long war in J&K. “The LeT first entered Kashmir in the mid-1990s, initially in forested tracts of the northern Valley, at a time when HM dominated the militancy. The HM was of course the major egg in the Pakistani military and ISI’s Kashmir basket, but the LeT and similar groups provided a way of exerting a direct Pakistani influence on the militancy and of making life even harder for the security forces,” he says.

Professor Bose goes on, “By the late 1990s the LeT had become a formidable force both in the Valley and the insurgency- prone parts of the Jammu region, and by the beginning of the 2000s, it had achieved a certain cult status in the Valley because of its spearheading of the ‘fidayeen’ campaign, which raged from 1999 to 2003 and then gradually tapered off. By the early 2000s the HM was severely depleted from sustained counter-insurgency operations against the group waged jointly after the mid-1990s by the security forces and ‘renegades’ (surrendered militants), and debilitated by internal rifts. The LeT was never a very numerous group in J&K and recruited only a relatively small number of local Kashmiris as active fighters, but it did have a larger-than-life presence in the declining years of the insurgency. By comparison the JeM, the outfit led by Masood Azhar after his release during the Kandahar hijacking in end-1999, while capable of the occasional lethal attack, gradually became an also-ran after a strong start in 2000.”

Professor Bose’s argument is that the small numbers of Kashmiri youths who have become new-generation militants are opting to join the more indigenous HM rather than the LeT, and this shows the declining appeal of the most formidable Pakistani organisation to have appeared on the firmament of Kashmir militancy. The rise of Abdul Qayoom Najar, a young leader of the Lashkar-e-Islami who was earlier with HM, has also been a setback for Pakistan-sponsored terrorists in Kashmir.

Whatever the state of militancy, the people’s indignation is for all to see—something emphatically denied by government officials. Sample this: at least 20,000 people reportedly attended the funeral of a slain LeT militant in Pulwama and forced a complete shutdown in the twin towns of Pulwama and Awantipora despite a curfew.

Not even the most die-hard optimists among militants, who were less than 4,000 even back in 2004, doubt that Army troops, numbering several hundred thousand in the state, can easily crush any revival of terrorism. But any such use of brute force will naturally put the PDP in a bind by risking the alienation of its core voters. Army officers Open spoke to suggest that more youths are joining the ranks of militants after a lull also because of their aversion to the PDP’s alliance with the BJP, and out of suspicion towards the BJP’s political designs in the state. More importantly, with militancy evolving into the kind led by Burhan, who has been active in the Tral area in south Kashmir, state agencies will have to devise new ways to take them on. “When deep anger and helplessness come together, it is a deadly combination,” says Khan, who compares the way thickly Muslim populated areas of Kashmir were ignored during the floods a year ago with the way the US government delayed rescue work in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Black-dominated city 10 years ago.

Are Kashmiris at large given to grumbles like this? Professor Bose thinks so. He feels that there is an element of a cultural tendency to complain excessively, in Kashmir. “They are very much like Bengalis—eat rice, prone to being emotional, and the grumbling habit,” he says. However, he adds, “It’d be a great pity if another opportunity to make progress in Kashmir is squandered. There was another opening exactly a decade ago, in 2004- 2005, which was wasted through sheer incompetence and neglect by the then political leadership at the Centre. The PDP-BJP pact document (Agenda of Alliance) is a very good one, but of course it’s a piece of paper and grassroots realities are more complicated. True, it has only been about six months since the new J&K government took office, but the state and especially the Valley urgently need the healing touch. There is a long pattern in the Valley of things going sour and even rotten relatively quickly, if left to fester.”