ON THE NIGHT OF 4 FEBRUARY 2011, one day after the Indian Army reached an agreement with the Jammu and Kashmir state government to modify the army’s standard operating procedure to avoid further killing of innocent civilians, Manzoor Ahmed Magray, a 21-year-old from North Kashmir’s Handwara district, walked out of his house to meet his girlfriend. Soon after he stepped on a bridge that led to the village of his sweetheart, a flash grenade exploded just a few steps away from him. The loud thud froze him in his tracks. Then a bullet ripped through his right foot. He fell, and died.
The bullet was fired by an Indian Army unit hiding behind some nearby trees. VK Singh, the army chief of staff, said that he regretted Magray’s death. But he still defended his own men: “The boy was fired at because he didn’t stop when he was told to,” Singh said in a TV interview.
Four days prior to Magray’s killing, some unidentified gunmen barged into the house of two sisters, Arifa, 18, and Akhtara, 16, from the northern Kashmir town of Sopore. The gunmen were wearing masks. They dragged out both women sisters and shot them dead. Police blamed Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT)—a Pakistan-based militant outfit—for the killing. A few hours later, the United Jihad Council (UJC), a coalition of militant groups that includes LeT, denied the police claim. But the following day, LeT posters were seen all over Sopore claiming responsibility for the killings, and explaining that the girls had been killed because they were ‘immoral’; shortly thereafter, the LeT denied having put up the posters, and again denied involvement in the murders. Who killed the two sisters? The government believes that the militants were responsible—and the police have therefore closed the case without any further investigation.
These killings have once again raised the spectre of a repeat of last summer’s violent pro-independence demonstrations, which left 112 dead, nearly 3,000 injured, and more than 3,000 others in detention. Since the stone-pelting subsided at the end of last summer, the state government has attempted to control the situation by deploying additional force: imposing strict military curfews; carrying out unwarranted crackdowns; and barring separatist leaders from assembling crowds. For the time being, violent protest has trickled almost to a halt—with a few notable exceptions, in Sopore and Baramulla—but tension between police and the young Kashmiris who participated in last summer’s protests has not abated.
For the last five months, New Delhi has been in constant touch with three of its appointed “interlocutors”, who were sent to Kashmir in October with a mandate to hold talks with Kashmir’s main political groupings and other stakeholders, from human rights activists to academics. But the separatists—both moderates and radicals—without whose consent negotiations will remain impossible, refused to meet Delhi’s emissaries. The interlocutors have continued to meet other groups—student delegations, professors and village heads—but the meagre accomplishments of these dialogues have been vastly outweighed by the ongoing state repression and the emotional impact of the killings of Magray and the two young women in Sopore.
The two incidents reflect the complexity of the Kashmir issue, and the extent to which ordinary Kashmiris remain trapped between two sources of violence. If the two sisters were killed by the LeT, their tragic deaths further demonstrate the extent to which Islamic militants intervene in the lives of Kashmiris. The killing of Magray, on the other hand, is a reminder of the impunity still enjoyed by the Indian Army, particularly in those areas where there is a dearth of journalists and human rights activists, and where the police and civil administration lack accountability. When the Kashmiri people protest against such atrocities, their voices are too often silenced with bullets—which is precisely what happened last summer. It was a series of similar incidents—the mysterious rape and murder of two women in Shopian, the killing of three young men in a false encounter with the Indian Army, and the shooting of a teenager by the J&K police—that led directly to the intifada-style uprising of stone-pelters. As a result, a large part of Kashmir spent three months, from June to September, under military curfew.
During 22 years of conflict, the hopes of a resolution in Kashmir have been raised twice: in 2003, when moderate separatist leaders accepted New Delhi’s dialogue offer, and in 2005, when Pakistan’s then-president, Pervez Musharraf, issued his four-point formula for the disputed territory. But the dialogue with New Delhi went nowhere, and Musharraf’s idea—which had the support of moderate separatists—was eventually shelved as a result of his political troubles in Pakistan. Since then, moderate separatist leaders have been on the defensive, accused by more radical pro-Pakistan parties of “selling out” Kashmir with nothing to show for their compromises. The moderates’ credibility crisis opened the door for hardline separatists like Syed Ali Geelani, who emerged in 2010 as the most powerful separatist leader in Kashmir.
For Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who heads the coalition of moderate separatist parties, the Indian government’s lack of initiative has only given succour to hardline elements in Kashmir. “I don’t understand why New Delhi has no policy vis-à-vis the Kashmir dispute,” Mirwaiz told me when we met before the last summer’s agitation at his Srinagar residence. New Delhi’s rigid stand, Mirwaiz suggested, has only helped Geelani gain political strength.
Geelani’s refusal to enter any dialogue with New Delhi unless it is conducted on a “trilateral” basis—between India, Pakistan and Kashmiri leaders—has spared him the taint of compromise. He has successfully used the failure of previous bilateral talks, furthermore, to convince many Kashmiris of the futility of further dialogue.
Pakistan regards Kashmir as its ‘jugular vein’, while India sees the state as an ‘integral part’ of the union. By any objective standard, these competing views define Kashmir as a disputed territory. But Geelani’s stipulation that India must accept Kashmir’s status as disputed has been met with ridicule from New Delhi. India, however, does talk with Pakistan—in February their dialogue, which had been suspended after the Mumbai terror attacks, resumed—and in those talks both countries have agreed Kashmir will be among the issues discussed.
This duality—that Kashmir is, depending on the circumstances, regarded either as an internal Indian matter or a matter for negotiation between India and Pakistan—is one source of ongoing frustration for Kashmiris, who are left aside in both formulations. For India to discuss Kashmir with Pakistan, but not with Kashmiris, stokes further anger in the valley, while India’s boasts about democracy in Kashmir lead to even greater anger on the ground.
For Kashmiris, any claims about democracy or freedom are belied by the ongoing existence of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which essentially gives the army a free hand to kill Kashmiris. The Public Safety Act, which enables local police to detain civilians without trial, would be unacceptable in any democracy; nor would the citizens of a democratic state tolerate the presence of 10 armed soldiers for every civilian.
The glaring absence of the rights common to most other democracies has threatened the political viability of Kashmir’s pro-India parties and leaders, many of whom are now shifting their rhetoric after years of ignoring human rights violations, fearing further anger from the public. The People’s Democratic Party, led by the former Indian Home Minister Mufti Muhammad Syed, has now adopted a stance on negotiations nearly identical to Geelani’s views. Even Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of J&K and a member of the pro-India National Conference, has begun to utter provocative statements, including saying in October that “Kashmir didn’t merge with India”.
The ongoing political unrest in the valley has severely compromised support for pro-India politicians, while the most senior separatist leaders have always refused to contest elections. Increasingly, as a result, those elected to office have the support of a dwindling proportion of the population. Sajad Gani Lone, a lower-rung separatist leader, parted ways with his camp to run in the 2009 Parliamentary elections, and lost badly—after his example, it’s hard to imagine that any other separatist politician would risk contesting an Indian election. Even an optimist like Lone, who dreamed of raising the Kashmir issue in Parliament, has grown deeply disillusioned. “The conflict will always stay there,” Lone told me when we met in Delhi last month. “Neither India nor Pakistan is bothered about the human toll this conflict is taking. Why should they bother? It is a bloody Kashmiri who is dying.”
A few months prior to meeting Lone, I had interviewed the senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyer, who expressed disappointment over the use of “lethal” ammunition by police in the summer of 2010. But he was quick to reiterate, at the same time, that “Kashmir is a domestic problem of India”, and one he thinks that separatists are not going to solve, at least so long as they refuse to contest elections—though as Lone’s case demonstrates, to do so would almost certainly deplete their political capital with ordinary Kashmiris. At the same time, Aiyer denied that there was substantial evidence of human rights violations in Kashmir—and it is these violations, after all, that make political participation so toxic for separatist leaders.
As another summer approaches, Kashmir again seems ripe for revolt. Even Omar Abdullah, who as chief minister heads the civil administration as well as the Unified Command, which coordinates the activities of army units and state police, seems to have run out of ideas and options: after each new killing, Abdullah is left to express his consternation and confusion on Twitter. At the same time, he has begun training an additional five battalions of police—approximately 3,000 men—in anticipation of continuing protest this summer. The police have continued to arrest young men who they believe were involved in last summer’s uprising; a recent report from the J&K police indicates that more than 100 boys in Srinigar’s old city were arrested in January alone. After Magray, the young lover, was killed by the army, Abdullah once again took to Twitter, lamenting “another needless death in bloody Kashmir”. But he has done little to prevent further needless bloodshed.
Almost eight months after the first outbreak of stone-pelting in Kashmir, very little has been done to diminish the likelihood of another uprising this summer; if anything, the responses from New Delhi and the Jammu and Kashmir state government, which have alternately disappointed and outraged Kashmiris, ensure that the streets will burst into violence once again in the months to come.
Mehboob Jeelani is a former staff writer at The Caravan. He is currently studying for an MA in journalism at Columbia University. He has extensively covered the Kashmir conflict, and has contributed to the leading English dailies of Jammu and Kashmir.