On the evening of 14 June, the day before Eid, Shujaat Bukhari, the editor of the centrist newspaper Rising Kashmir, left his office in Srinagar’s Press Enclave locality to attend an iftar, the traditional evening meal that breaks the Ramdan fast. Within minutes, his colleagues, working to put the next day’s edition to bed, heard a burst of gunfire. When they looked down from their windows, Bukhari was lying dead in his car.
His death became the pretext for the Bharatiya Janata Party to pull out of its alliance with the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party (PDP), effectively bringing down the state government. The fall of the government means that Jammu and Kashmir is now directly administered by the BJP government at the centre—a move that seems to be in service of the party’s campaign for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The BJP-PDP alliance was an unlikely one to begin with, and it reflected the demographic and political incongruities of the state. When the alliance was formed, the then head of the PDP, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, had likened it to the coming together of the “North Pole and South Pole.” The PDP wanted nothing discussed that would in any way suggest a weakening of Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status, while this status was anathema to the BJP. The PDP wanted a dialogue with separatists, while the BJP wanted to use the Army and police to come down hard on militant groups in the Valley. The uneasy compromise that had existed for four years has now come to an end.
Given that the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir is no different today than it has been for the last couple of years, the government’s decision to administer Kashmir directly has little to do with the state itself, and everything to do with how the BJP will make use of it in the rest of the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has seen his popularity diminish, even while enjoying a clear lead over his nearest rivals, and the BJP has lost a series of by-elections in states that will be critical to the electoral outcome in 2019. As growth falters and new jobs fail to materialise, the BJP is likely to run its campaign on its core Hindu nationalist platform—tough against terror, tough against Pakistan, with a consistent emphasis on the Islamist threat to the country.
As a Muslim-majority region enjoying special constitutional status, Jammu and Kashmir is central to the party’s campaign pitch. Contributing only six out of the 543 legislators in the Lok Sabha, it has little actual influence on Indian legislative politics but has always had an outsize role in the BJP’s electoral rhetoric. The role it will play in the party’s rhetoric for 2019 is already being shaped.
Within days of the alliance coming apart, the national media was running a story on how India was facing an ISIS threat after four ISIS terrorists were “neutralised.” Embarrassingly, just months earlier, a spokesperson for the home ministry had categorically stated there was no evidence of ISIS presence in Jammu and Kashmir. A few days later, a news report announced, “‘Al-Qaeda’ men stoked trouble in Srinagar.” Based on a single unnamed “official source,” it spoke of crowd unrest in Srinagar being provoked by an Indian affiliate of Al Qaeda. As the elections approach, it is clear that with little or no effort on their part, ISIS and Al Qaeda will emerge as major threats to India.
The ratcheting up of the rhetoric on Islamist threats has been accompanied by greater hawkishness on issues of Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status. Ram Madhav, the BJP national general secretary, in his first press conference after pulling out of the alliance, said that abrogating the special constitutional provisions for the state was still one of the BJP’s key goals. Analysing the end of the alliance, The Organiser, the mouthpiece of the RSS, which is the parent body of the BJP, began with an old quote from one of its central figures and its chief ideologue, MS Golwalkar: “There is only one way to keep Kashmir—and that is by complete integration.”
Much of this is grandstanding, but such grandstanding has an impact. The alliance inherited a situation from the previous Jammu and Kashmir government where violence had dropped to its lowest levels since 1990. But any assessment based only on levels of violence misses some vital changes in the nature of unrest in the state. While armed violence continues to be dominated by Islamist groups—often with non-Kashmiri Pakistani or Afghan cadre such as the Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba—the unrests in 2008 and 2010 were different in nature. Young Kashmiris had come out in large numbers, foregoing guns for stones, to pelt the security forces. The 2008 and 2010 protests were largely coordinated by the Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella group of separatist organisations who wield influence over the protestors in ways that political parties cannot.
But it now seems that even the Hurriyat is not really in charge. In July 2016, 22-year-old Burhan Wani, a Kashmiri from a well-to-do family who had joined the militant ranks when he was 15 and later become the commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed by the police. But the reality of Wani may never have been very potent. When he was killed—as Shujaat Bukhari noted in a column for Rising Kashmir—a senior policeman claimed, “The truth is, despite all his ‘virtual’ bravado, despite being a poster boy, he could not carry out a single action against security forces.” But his symbolism was another matter. He was homegrown—not a Pakistani or an Afghan, he did not hide behind a mask or use an alias. Active on Facebook, he was a social-media star with an aura of defiance.
Wani’s death brought an unprecedented popular upsurge out on the streets. People may have collected in large numbers for earlier funerals of militants, but never had the Valley seen prolonged popular unrest over such a death. Around 100 people were killed in the summer that followed Wani’s killing, many of them Kashmiri protestors shot by Indian security forces. It soon became evident that these protests were not even being led by the Hurriyat; the leadership may have been attempting to echo to the young, but it was no longer in a position to order or even guide them. In today’s Kashmir, any leader who does not reflect the anger on the streets and the extremism of the young carries no legitimacy. In such an environment, India has left itself in a position where it has no one to talk to, because the very act of talking to Indian authorities is enough to delegitimise the person attempting to do so.
Even as any leadership in Jammu and Kashmir has been delegitimised, levels of violence have begun creeping up. National media had already been focussed on the state for a day before news of Bukhari’s murder broke, because the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had released a report about violence in Kashmir. Using official central-government records, it delivered a devastating critique of India’s record in the Valley, concluding that “Any resolution to the political situation in Kashmir should entail a commitment to ending the cycles of violence and accountability for past and current human rights violations and abuses committed by all parties and redress for victims.”
With Bukhari’s death, the report receded into the background. A number of media figures who often represent the line advocated by the Indian security establishment focused on how forces from across the border had taken umbrage at Bukhari’s involvement in back-channel attempts to bring peace to Kashmir. BJP supporters and right-wing journalists went on social media to call out all those who were not forthright in condemning Pakistan and Islamist forces for the killing of Bukhari. In Kashmir, where the innocuousness of such back-channel efforts is well known, such claims were met with scepticism.
As is par for the course, the killing of the Kashmiri journalist Shujaat Bukhari in Srinagar has become about everything other than Kashmir. And once again, Kashmir has come to stand for everything but itself.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.