reportage Politics

The Iron Cage

Why the Indian state is failing in Kashmir

By PRAVEEN DONTHI | 1 October 2016

ON 8 JULY, INDIAN SECURITY FORCES killed the 21-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani in Kashmir’s Anantnag district. Anger immediately erupted in the valley, and protestors took to the streets in their thousands, even in towns and villages that were usually unaffected by past agitations. Protestors blocked roads, imposed shutdowns, shouted anti-India slogans and pelted stones at security personnel who tried to restrain them.

When I travelled through Kashmir in July, most people I spoke to felt that Burhan’s killing was followed by a dramatic upsurge in the Kashmiri resistance movement. “He openly challenged the mighty Indian state,” a Kashmiri journalist told me. “No more hiding guns under the pheran. No more using pseudonyms. No more hiding behind a mask. That appealed to the people who have been suppressed under the fear of large-scale military presence.” Burhan, he added, “brought the discussion back to the dinner table.”

As in 2010, when the valley last witnessed protests of this scale, the Indian government responded with crushing force, deploying army and paramilitary personnel, who fired at protesters in several places across Kashmir. At the time this story went to press, 89 civilians had been killed, and more than 13,000 injured.

In 2010, several separatist leaders—most prominently Syed Ali Shah Geelani—had been at the forefront of the agitations. These leaders regularly issued calendars that told protesters when to begin agitations, when to halt them, when to take out marches, when to visit the families of the dead and the injured, and even when to go shopping. The protesters obeyed unquestioningly. There was little doubt that Geelani was the leader of the Kashmiri resistance—perhaps the first such figure since Sheikh Abdullah five decades earlier.

This year was different. Several people, including protesters, police personnel and ordinary Kashmiris, told me that the agitations were spontaneous and leaderless, and that Geelani and other leaders did not wield the kind of clout they once did. Though the leaders issued calendars, young Kashmiris in particular demanded more aggressive protests. In Sopore, Geelani’s stronghold, youth had criticised and flouted his call to relax their hartal after 2 pm, a young man from the town told me. The leaders’ shaky hold over protesters was also evident from the repeated statements they issued, asking people to follow their calendars, and warning that those who didn’t would be deemed to be against the movement.

The protests have been raging on for more than two months. On 18 September, a squad of four fidayeen militants attacked an army camp in the town of Uri, close to the Pakistan border, killing 18 Indian soldiers. In the days that followed, the intensity of protests dropped briefly. A volunteer at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, or SMHS Hospital, in Srinagar, told me that there had been “no injuries from two, three days except casual incidents.”

As the Indian government made angry statements against Pakistan, and television anchors called for war, Geelani released his own statement. He declared that when scores of protesters “fell to bullets and pellets, thousands were maimed, properties worth millions ransacked and hundreds lost their vision,” no one extended support to them. “What kind of philosophy,” he said, “makes you mourn the Uri episode but derive pleasure from the massacre in Kashmir?”

I LANDED IN SRINAGAR on the morning of 23 July, 15 days after Burhan’s death. By then, 45 young protesters had died at the hands of security forces, and the valley had been under continuous curfew. The flight I took was half empty, mostly occupied by Kashmiris and pilgrims bound for the Amarnath shrine in south Kashmir. When we arrived, officials told the pilgrims that they could only leave for the shrine after midnight, and that only one route, through north Kashmir, was available to them. South Kashmir was under complete shutdown.

The driver of the taxi I booked at the airport looked surprised when he learnt I was headed for Rawalpora, a locality that tourists seldom visited. He seemed worried about what we might encounter on the way. I asked him why. Weren’t curfews a way of life here? What was new this time? Looking ahead at the empty road, he said, “Our leader Burhan has been martyred, so all of Kashmir is up in flames.”

I have reported several times from the valley since 2008, but I had never seen ordinary Kashmiris embrace militants so openly. Something fundamental had changed, as I would discover over the week I spent travelling across the valley, speaking to people. Kashmiris spoke about their political convictions far more openly than before, and even excoriated respected separatist leaders such as Geelani—something that would have been unthinkable in the past.

Along the route to Rawalpora, small groups of paramilitary soldiers and police wearing riot-gear stood on either side of the road. Guns and tear-gas canisters hung from their shoulders. Apart from two vegetable sellers on the pavement and pharmacies with their shutters halfway down, there was little activity on the streets. While some areas in Srinagar have seen regular protests over the years, this year, upper-middle-class localities such as Rawalpora and Sanat Nagar, which had earlier largely remained unaffected, also witnessed fierce agitations.

That afternoon, I reached SMHS Hospital, named after an autocratic former ruler of Kashmir who acceded to India instead of Pakistan at the time of Partition. On a glass door and one wall, someone had scribbled the words “Indian media and dogs not allowed,” venting the anger that many Kashmiris felt towards hawkish television anchors and other journalists.

In the past, injured protesters avoided visiting government medical facilities such as SMHS Hospital altogether, for fear that the police would arrest them there. This time, however, there had been a deluge of injured Kashmiris at all the hospitals.

I headed to a ward reserved for those with pellet injuries: people who had been shot with pellet guns, which Indian security forces use in the valley as a tool of crowd control. Many of those in the ward had been shot in the face, often severely damaging their eyes. Young boys sat with bandages covering their eyes, wearing dark glasses, looking lost. Their family members next to them appeared equally forlorn. People spoke in hushed tones, and a deep sadness filled the space. I couldn’t bring myself to pierce the silence and interview the families. “Kashmir is full of graveyards of martyrs,” a journalist told me. “But these blinded youth are going to be the living memorials, reminding people in their families and localities, as long as they live, of the brutality of the Indian state.”

A few corridors away, young men with bullet injuries were housed in the surgery block. This room had more light, and was suffused with some sense of hope of recovery. But people in the hospital were suspicious of me. As I spoke to the injured, volunteers came up a few times and demanded to see my identity card. They wanted to make sure that I was a journalist and not a policeman taking notes. Volunteers asked more than once which television channel I worked for, and seemed reassured when I said I worked for a magazine. It helped that I knew one of them from earlier visits to Kashmir.

The families of several of the injured youth had not learnt for some days that their loved ones were in a Srinagar hospital, because transport and communication facilities had been shut down. Aijaz, the brother of 19-year-old Shabbir Ahmad Rather of Zoohama village, located south of Srinagar, told me that his brother had been severely beaten and tortured by personnel of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force. He said the village sarpanch got Shabbir released from CRPF custody,and he was brought to the Srinagar hospital. “I came walking for 26 kilometres looking for him,” Aijaz said. “Then I went home after two, three days and told my family that he’s not dead, and came back walking all the way to be with him.”

Aijaz said that his village had remained calm at first, after Burhan was killed. “But they imposed curfew to stop people from going to his funeral,” he said. “That’s when the protests started.” Though the Kashmiri resistance movement had been underway for three decades, he added, they had “not seen such brutality” before this year. “Tomorrow, I might join,” he said. “Look at my brother. We are even ready to take a bullet now. If there is no decision this time, there never will be.” The emotions of the valley’s youth were so charged, he said, that their “parents also don’t ask, ‘Where are you going?’” when they leave the house. “Burhan might have had 20 people with him,” Aijaz added, “but now there will be thousands.”

Farooq Ahmad Bhat, a 48-year-old driver who was taking care of his daughter on the next bed, joined the conversation. “Hindustan bolta hai ki Kashmir uska atoota ang hai, lekin us ang pe kabhi dard nahin hota hai” (India says Kashmir is an integral part of its body, but they don’t feel the pain of that part), he said. He cited the Jat protests of June in Haryana as evidence that the government was biased. “They went on a rampage but did the police use pellet guns against them?” he asked. “No. Why only here? Because this is a Muslim state.” But Kashmiris wouldn’t be cowed down, he added. “We Kashmiris keep rations for two, three months,” he said. “People in Delhi will die in ten days. Not us. There is a call from the youth this time to Geelani to keep it going as long as it takes.”

Though Burhan’s funeral was one of the biggest Kashmir has ever seen, those of other slain militants in the past few years have also drawn huge crowds. The political reverberations of these, however, did not reach Srinagar till Burhan’s death. Riyaz Ahmad Bhat, a 30-year-old medical representative from Kakapora village in Pulwama district in south Kashmir, around 30 kilometres from Srinagar, told me about one such militant, named Abdul Rehman, who was better known as Abu Qasim. Qasim, who carried a bounty of R20 lakh on his head, died in an encounter in October 2015. “He used to work as a labourer initially, sometimes sold chana, for some time he was a conductor too,” Bhat said with awe. “But when he got exposed, he went underground.” The police credit Qasim with some major attacks on security forces, including the killing of a counter-insurgency officer named Altaf Ahmad in October 2015.

After his killing, Qasim was buried in the village of Bugam in Kulgam district, though residents of Kakapora demanded that they be allowed to take his body to their village. His funeral was attended by more than 50,000 people, according to news reports. Attendees also attacked the nearest CRPF battalion camp.

Riyaz told me that three people from Kakapora had already died in the current protests. He was eager that I understand just how much they supported militants. “We have saved four mujahids from a live encounter in Naman village last year,” he said. I asked him how. “People of all ages leave theirhouses and go towards the encounter sites and pelt stones,” he said. “Police don’t dare to come to the villages in our area. When people are picked up in the night, they announce it on the mosque’s loudspeaker and people come out to protest.”

Such strategies seem to have had an impact on the security forces. DS Hooda, a senior military commander in Kashmir, told the Associated Press in June 2015, “Frankly speaking, I’m not comfortable anymore conducting operations if large crowds are around.”

Riyaz said that he had a “strong desire” to become a militant himself, but his parents had forced him to get married. “I couldn’t do it, but I want my son to become a mujahid,” he told me. I asked him if he didn’t fear for his son’s life. “He is only four months old now,” he told me casually. “But even before he was born I had told my wife that if it is a son, we will make him like Abu Qasim.” As we wrapped up the interview, Riyaz insisted that I could use his name, and the name of his village. He said that he was not afraid of anyone.

Exiting the hospital, I suddenly heard loud cries of, “Nara-e-Takbeer, Allah-hu-Akbar”—an Arabic phrase from the Quran that translates to “Shout out loud, God is the greatest.” A group of people had surrounded a young boy who had just walked through the gates. He looked about 15 years old, or younger. His face was swollen, and when he raised his T-shirt red pellet wounds were visible on his torso, even from a distance. After a few minutes, he walked into the hospital, and the crowd around him dispersed.

WHILE SOME CLAIM that the Kashmiri struggle against oppression goes back as far as the sixteenth century, the form of defiance that the valley’s people are showing security forces today is most reminiscent of the resistance of the late 1980s, when militancy first broke out. In those years, ordinary Kashmiris faced armed forces with a new-found boldness. “In the past you fired one shot in the air and they disappeared,” the senior journalist Shekhar Gupta quoted a CRPF officer as saying in India Today in January 1990. “Today you kill one demonstrator, then a second, and yet the mob keeps coming at you. Finally you withdraw. People have lost their fear. This is a defiant new breed of Kashmiri.”

The Indian government responded with a brutal military campaign that had, by the mid 1990s, more or less extinguished the militancy. This apparent success was further boosted after the 11 September 2001 attacks, when, under intense pressure from the United States, Pakistan cracked down on militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which had been instrumental in supporting and training Kashmiri militants.

But military might did not yield a solution to the political problem at the heart of the conflict. This became apparent in the mid 2000s, when common Kashmiris began taking to the streets to voice their discontent with the Indian state through non-violent protests. The “wisdom behind the use of arms to fight a political struggle was being silently debated within Kashmir ever since 9/11 blurred the lines dividing terrorism and genuine political movements,” the senior journalist Muzamil Jaleel wrote in The Guardian in 2008. “The deteriorating situation inside Pakistan too had tilted the balance towards a peaceful struggle.” As a result, Jaleel noted, Kashmir became “the first conflict-ridden Muslim region in the world where people have consciously made a transition from violence to non-violence, and this includes the staunch Islamists too.” Where once the idea of resistance had been associated with guns, people now took out processions, carrying flags and shouting slogans. And when security forces intervened, protesters resorted to stone pelting, a form of resistance that has a decades-old history in Kashmir.

Separatist leaders were key to managing this resistance—chiefly those belonging to the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, commonly known as the Hurriyat: a coalition of social and religious groups, formed in 1993, that stood for Kashmiris’ right to self-determination. But the Hurriyat split into two factions in 2003 over disagreements on strategy. Over the next few years, one faction, led by the suave head priest of Kashmir, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, found favour with both India and Pakistan, and held talks with the Indian government. But these talks failed to make progress, and the faction’s appeal and influence waned.

Meanwhile, the rival faction—headed by Geelani, who led the political party Tehreek-e-Hurriyat—won widespread respect for its uncompromising stance on the right to self-determination. In 2008, when protests erupted in the valley over several issues, including the transfer of land to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board and the killing of civilians, Geelani, along with the separatist leader Masarat Alam led the agitations, regularly issuing protest calendars and releasing guiding statements.

After the protests peaked in 2010, security forces responded with brutal aggression. Around 120 civilians were killed over several months that year. People looked to Geelani to keep up the momentum of the agitations. But, to their surprise, in August 2010, Geelani emerged after six weeks under arrest, seeming to have climbed down from his usually aggressive position. He called for peaceful protests at a time when forces were being ruthless in their repression, and his weekly calendars listed fewer agitations.

Over time, Kashmiris came to see various incidents from the period as signs that Geelani had allowed the movement to flag. Among these was a meeting he held while he was in jail, with an aide of the then chief minister, Omar Abdullah. Some began to believe that Geelani’s softened stand was linked to the smooth return from Pakistan to Kashmir, in November 2010, of his son Naeem. Many young people vented their frustrations on social media, declaring that Geelani had let down the cause.

ON THE EVENING OF MY ARRIVAL in Srinagar, I met a group of journalists at Regal Chowk, a usually bustling area in the city centre that was now deserted. They were standing on the pavement discussing the political situation in the valley. “We don’t know what was happening in the villages,” one senior journalist said. “None of us expected this, but there were clear signs.”

Another journalist pointed out that Kashmiri villages usually saw high turnouts in elections, and therefore, the intensity of protests in them this time challenged the common assumption that voters and protesters were two different groups. Of people such as himself, who lived in Srinagar, he said, “We don’t vote. We don’t fight. But those who vote also fight and die.”

The discussion turned towards resistance leaders. “The leadership is bankrupt of ideas,” the senior journalist said. “They should just come out and tell people, ‘We can’t do it.’ They can’t be in the mode of lament all the time. Lamenting can’t be a strategy. They can’t forever hide behind the excuse that they are under house arrest, so they can’t step out and take rallies.” He argued that Geelani, who maintains that India should not limit the discussion on Kashmir to what is prescribed by the constitution, was in a stalemate with the government. “Geelani saab, you want them to speak outside the constitutional ambit, they said no. It’s a closed chapter. What now?” Other leaders, too, had failed to rise to the occasion, he added. “All the resistance leaders reside within a seven-kilometre radius in Srinagar,” he said. “Why can’t, say, Shabir Shah”—a veteran separatist leader—“go and sit in Anantnag, reach out to people and give statements from there?”

Another journalist weighed in on Geelani, saying that although “Indian journalists always describe him as the hawk, Geelani is not a hawk. He is very soft.” The leader frequently spoke of United Nations’ resolutions on Kashmir, the journalist said. “He looks at the whole thing through the frame of the United Nations, which is as modern and democratic as it can get. He invokes Western democracy. I wonder how he is termed as an extremist and a hardliner. He is called a hardliner only because he has a firm position on independence from India.”

Yet another journalist described Geelani as a “parliamentarian,” and argued that “parliamentarians can’t lead revolutions, because they always want 51 percent on their side whom they don’t want to upset.”

The group then discussed the role of religion in the protests, and the apprehensions that the agitations would lead to the valley growing more conservative, along the lines of  Afghanistan under the Taliban. “Taliban? There are stupid people who say that without knowing what it really means,” the senior journalist said. Referring to Kashmiris’ fondness for large homes, he said, “If we really wanted to go the Afghanistan way, we would be preparing ourselves for a long war, and we wouldn’t be building all these big houses.”

I asked the journalists about the effects of the latest protests on the political leadership in the valley. “This wave has made resistance leadership redundant,” one of them told me. “They are rattled. They don’t know what to do.” But, he added, he saw a “silver lining” in this development. He said that the reputation of the Peoples Democratic Party, which he described as a “soft-separatist party” and a tool of the Indian state in the valley, “is finished.”

NO POLITICAL PARTY in Kashmir better embodies the cycle of hope and betrayal that Kashmiris are trapped in than the Peoples Democratic Party, or the PDP, formed in 1998. In 2002, the party emerged as a challenger to the National Conference. The NC had long dominated Kashmiri politics, but had been discredited over previous decades—particularly when it joined hands with the Congress after a rigged election in 1987 to form the government in the state.

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the PDP’s leader, who in the late 1980s had served as the union home minister in the United Front government under VP Singh, spoke of adopting a “healing touch” approach to the militancy. He urged militants to give up arms, and assured them that the PDP would represent them in the assembly, protect their rights and campaign for self-rule.

But there are murky undercurrents to the story of the PDP’s origins. In his 2015 memoir Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, the former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing AS Dulat recounted a conversation with Shabir Shah which strongly hinted that the PDP’s rise was plotted by the centre. “I had a long chat with Shabir during the 2002 elections, when I tried to persuade him to contest,” Dulat wrote. But Shah, he added, declined and said, “anyway it’s decided that Farooq Abdullah or his son Omar will become the chief minister.” Dulat assured Shah that he was wrong. Later, after the elections, “Mufti Sayeed became the chief minister without having won the largest number of seats, and I told Shabir he had been wrong,” Dulat wrote. Sayeed held the post of chief minister for three years that coincided with a period of ceasefire and relative peace between India and Pakistan.

The PDP lost power to the NC in 2008, and returned to rule only in 2014. This time, its close ties to the centre were laid bare after it entered into an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, in power at the centre, to form a government in Jammu and Kashmir, despite having campagined vehemently against the party ahead of the elections. The coalition stunned Kashmiris. The BJP’s Hindutva agenda was utterly incompatible with Kashmiris’ beliefs and way of life. Sure enough, the grotesqueness of the partnership was soon revealed, when, among other measures, BJP leaders supported the revival of an archaic beef ban, and began to speak of settling former soldiers in the valley.

Last August and September, I travelled throughout Kashmir to report a profile of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. During my trips, it was clear that discontent would soon boil over. South Kashmir was particularly volatile, since it had long been a stronghold of the PDP. The sense of disappointment among the people there was palpable, even among those who boycotted elections. “This is betrayal,” Burhan’s father, Muzaffar Ahmad Wani, told me back then. “Mufti could’ve joined hands with National Conference or Congress, but not the BJP. Whenever the politics is weak, Islam becomes stronger.”

This sentiment was accompanied by a growing sympathy for militants. Tral, in south Kashmir, saw a three-day shutdown in September 2015 after the army killed the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant Irshad Ahmad Ganai—though Srinagar saw only a single day’s shutdown. “There is a lot of anger” over the beef ban, Tral’s PDP MLA, Mushtaq Ahmad Shah, told me at that time. “I have been sitting at home for the past three days. I can’t step out. Anything can happen.” During our meeting, he received a call informing him that some youth from Tral had been arrested at Ganai’s funeral procession. “Police have registered an FIR against them,” he said. “The situation has been volatile. The police also should have been sensible. Filing FIRs only pushes them toward militancy.”

ON 24 JULY, I visited the family of 25-year-old Shabir Ahmad Mir in the Tengpora locality of Srinagar. A fortnight earlier, Shabir had been shot and killed in his home by a deputy superintendent of police named Yasir Qadri. The police claimed that Shabir was shot while leading a protest rally. The sparsely furnished house was a few kilometres from the main road, on an inner lane of the colony. I was shown into the front room, where I sat with Shabir’s father, Abdul Rehman Mir, a labourer with heart trouble, as well as some neighbours and relatives.

Shabir was a mason, and had supported the household with his earnings. The people I met described him as a “religious boy”—a Kashmiri way of saying he was well mannered. “He used to lead prayers too,” his neighbour and friend Muzaffar told me.

Abdul gave me an account of his son’s last moments, starting on the evening of 10 July, two days after Burhan’s death. After offering his evening prayer, Shabir went to meet some friends at the bund of a flood channel around 50 metres from his house. But after just a few minutes, he rushed back and told his father, who was watching television with his mother on the first floor of the house, that police had come to the bund. This was unusual: protests and stone pelting usually took place on the main road, and police were not known to venture this deep into residential colonies.

Suddenly, a tear-gas shell was fired into the house. Shabir’s brother pointed to where it had landed, a spot right in front of where I sat, which still bore a black mark. Then, five policemen burst into the compound and started smashing windowpanes. I noticed that the windows still had no glass, and were instead covered with old, floral-patterned cloth.

The police forced the door open, and then, Abdul said, Qadri, along with some others, climbed to the first floor, where they began firing indiscriminately. Abdul showed me holes on the walls and in the tin sheets of the roof, where the bullets had struck. “I shouted, ‘Why are you shooting? Aren’t you Kashmiris? Aren’t you Muslims?’” Abdul said. “They also abused my wife and slapped her.” Abdul recalled Shabir shouting, “You wretched people, what did we do?” At this, “they dragged him down the stairs. And, as I saw from above, DSP Yasir Qadri shot him twice in his abdomen.” Shabir jumped out of a ground-floor window to escape, but police ran after him. He tried to cross through a gap in a wall behind the house, but collapsed after pellets were fired at him from close range.

There were still bloodstains on the outer wall of the house. “For 15 minutes we kept shouting for help,” Abdul said. “Nobody responded, out of fear. Smoke engulfed the house and the neighbourhood as they shot more tear-gas shells while leaving. He died in my arms.” Shabir was the twenty-first youth to die in the unrest.

From a blue polythene bag, Abdul brought out a bundled handkerchief. He extracted a few objects from its folds and spread them out on the carpet in front of me: two kinds of tear-gas shells, and two bullet cartridges. The handkerchief was stained with Shabir’s blood. Qadri “had come decided to kill, hence he killed,” Abdul said. “I won’t leave these sister-fuckers. I have seen it with my own eyes. How can we trust what is being shown on TV? This is what they must be doing everywhere. They must be setting police stations on fire themselves and shooting people.”

The family went to the nearby Batmaloo police station to file a first information report, but the police refused to register one. The state’s bar association intervened on the family’s behalf and approached the chief judicial magistrate of a Srinagar court, who ordered the police to lodge an FIR against Qadri. When the police refused to follow these orders, the magistrate initiated contempt-of-court proceedings against Kashmir’s inspector general of police, SJM Gillani, and senior superintendent of police, Amit Kumar, for failing to act.

But the state government approached the Supreme Court. An additional solicitor general claimed that separatist leaders had been openly asking people to file FIRs, and argued that filing one against the police officer would demoralise the forces. The court quashed the contempt proceedings, and ordered that Shabir’s body be exhumed for an autopsy.

A MID-RANKING POLICE OFFICER I met in Srinagar, described the functioning of the Jammu and Kashmir police. “When they are in the bylanes, 30 people go in three teams,” he said. They followed “no command,” he added. “They do what they do.”

Geelani and other leaders had come under immense pressure to announce a social boycott of police personnel. But they had resisted making such an announcement. The human-rights activist Khurram Parvez—who in September was arrested under the Public Safety Act—offered an explanation for their reluctance. “There are many police who are trying to protect people as well,” Parvez told me. “People on the ground have reported to Geelani saab with specific instances.”

It was in the interest of the Indian state to pit Kashmir’s police against Kashmiri people, Parvez claimed. “One lakh people work in police,” he said. “If there is a boycott call without distinction, what will happen? There will be a civil war. The government of India will be very happy if the police and people are fighting each other.”

The senior journalist in Srinagar told me that, under the BJP’s leadership, the army and the CRPF had grown ruthless. “BJP is gloves-off,” he said. “It has brought about corrosive discourse of national interest. The armed forces are wearing the Modi attitude on their sleeves. The Indian soldier in Kashmir is feeling much more emboldened and ready at the trigger faster.”

The mid-ranking police officer singled out the CRPF for its excesses, arguing that it was ill-equipped to deal with the intricacies of the conflict in Kashmir. “These people have been posted in areas like Chanakyapuri of Delhi, where they have never seen crowds,” he said. “They were posted probably as security for government officers.” He said he knew of some CRPF officers who were “communal and ignorant,” though he clarified that he wouldn’t say this of the entire force. But some officers’ inexperience leads them to “think the problem will be settled by evening,” he said. CRPF jawans, he added, “try to teach the protesters a lesson, and that’s when things go out of control. If I have religion and region on my mind, then there is a professional compromise already, and there is only vengeance.”

QAZIGUND, a region in south Kashmir known as the “gateway of Kashmir,” is fringed below by the Pir Panjal range, which rises like a wall separating the valley from Jammu and the rest of India. The area had never been known for anti-India protests, so it came as a surprise when news broke in mid July that three people, including two women, had been killed by the army there.

Early on the rain-soaked morning of 27 July, I rode towards Qazigund on a motorcycle with another journalist. I had spent four days trying to hire a taxi to take me there, but in vain—the drivers I asked were unwilling to risk travelling to south Kashmir.

The roads were empty, since protesters typically only began their vigils later in the day, and carried on till midnight. The region resembled a battleground that had been temporarily abandoned by the warring sides. Slogans were scrawled everywhere—on the roads, and across the walls of buildings and compounds. “Burhan town.” “Indian dogs go back.” “Pakistan zindabad.” “Burhan lions.” “Burhan is a martyr.”

After riding for about 60 kilometres on the highway that connects Srinagar to Jammu, I turned into a narrow road that led to Churhat, a village of 700 houses, where the killings had occurred. Entering the village, I stopped next to a group of men wearing pherans, sitting under a thatched roof in front of a small shop, smoking and talking. I introduced myself, and said that I wanted to know about the massacre that had occurred in the village. The men immediately pointed to two among them: 60-year-old Ghulam Hassan Mir, who had lost his wife, Saida Banu; and 40-year old Fayaz Ahmad, who had lost his wife, Neelofer Jan. These men were hesitant at first. But then Mir began to speak, though Ahmad remained silent. Others pitched in to fill in parts of the story. The villagers were still struggling to piece together the fragments of the nightmare that had visited them.

The trouble had started at around five in the evening on 18 July, not in this village but in an adjoining one, Khargund, the men told me. When personnel from a nearby camp of the Rashtriya Rifles, a counter-insurgency wing of the army, found that someone had tied a cable across the breadth of a bridge, they grew angry and removed it. They then attacked the village, breaking windowpanes with stones hurled from slingshots, and beating villagers. The local mosque announced news of the attack on its loudspeaker, and asked the villagers to come out to help stop it. As people emerged from their houses, the army personnel left the village, taking three boys with them, and proceeded to Churhat.

The residents of Churhat had also heard the announcement. Women came out of their houses, worried for their children, who were playing cricket and volleyball in the middle of a walnut grove next to the main road. The women protested and freed the three boys from Khargund. The army personnel, who numbered around eight, left.

But about half an hour later, before the villagers had all dispersed, an army vehicle approached Churhat from the opposite direction, from another camp of the Rashtriya Rifles. As it entered the village, an eyewitness recounted, one soldier took aim and shot at the villagers, but another pushed his gun upwards, causing him to fire into the air. The vehicle moved into the village and crossed the point where the villagers stood. After moving about 15 metres further, the vehicle stopped. Then, soldiers moved towards the villagers and began to beat them, and one used a slingshot to hurl stones at the windows of nearby houses.  The villagers told me there were around 20 soldiers in all.

Then, the soldiers opened fire. The eyewitnesses I spoke to remembered that one knelt down to shoot, while another fired from atop the vehicle. The villagers scattered in panic as the soldiers sprayed bullets at them. Some were hit, and collapsed.

Saida Banu, who was in her fifties, was the first to be hit fatally, by two bullets. Noor Jehan, her daughter, ran towards her. “I held my mother in my arms,” she told me. “She looked at me and smiled. I thought she was alive. Then I was hit by a bullet on my right hand and I fainted. Somebody rescued me, I don’t know who.” She recounted the horror while sitting in her modest house, her right hand still swathed in thick bandages.

Mohammad Abbas Itoo was also shot in his right arm, when he rushed to save his brother, Showkat Ahmad Itoo, who had been shot below his neck. The Itoo brothers had been among those playing volleyball in the walnut grove when the army vehicle rolled into the village. Showkat died from his injuries.

Thirty-two-year-old Neelofer Jan was killed when she went in search of her son. “We thought they won’t fire,” 40-year-old Jawahar Banu, who had a bandaged arm, told me. “All the worried mothers went to find our sons. Everybody ran once the firing started. I ran after they broke my hand. Many fainted, we sprinkled water and woke them up.” The villagers told me that many people had saved themselves by hiding behind the large walnut trees next to the road. If they hadn’t, they said, many more would have been killed.

The mayhem lasted 15 minutes according to some, half an hour according to others—the fog of fear had left people with different memories of the day. Apart from the three villagers who were killed, seven others were seriously injured. “They were lying on the road bleeding and we couldn’t even give them water,” a middle-aged man told me. “It was like Karbala”—a reference to a seventh-century battle crucial to Islamic history. Some youngsters showed me pictures on their phones of the village road streaked with blood. “The next day it rained heavily for 20 minutes,” the man said. “It rained only in this village and the blood was washed away.”

I met one of the injured, 11-year-old Aaqib Fayaz, the son of a daily-wage labourer, who was recovering in a neighbour’s house.  “I was watching volleyball and suddenly there was fire,” he said. “I fell unconscious.” Bullets had ripped through his intestines. Aaqib was taken to a hospital in Anantnag, and underwent three emergency operations.

His father, Fayaz Ahmad Shah, raged at the idea that his young son might have posed a threat to the soldiers. “Who is capable of throwing stones? Me or my son?” he said. “What does Hindustan give us? 4 kilograms of rice. Let them keep it, we don’t want any.” Another man sitting in the room joined in. “Earlier, the main part of Kashmir used to fight,” he said. “Now the whole of Kashmir will fight. No official has visited us till now. Those who visit only come to rub salt in our wounds”—possibly referring to journalists such as me.

The village was still reeling. “People have nightmares of army firing,” Banu told me. “Those with houses on the main road”—where the firing took place—“don’t sleep in their houses anymore. They are scared that they will come and shoot.”

The residents’ shock was greater because Churhat had a reputation of being “Hindustani”—meaning that the spirit of the resistance movement, or the tehreek, was weak there. People freely participated in elections. Over 25 years, only three young men from this area had joined the militancy—a relatively low number. “Sacrifices were less from this village,” a young lawyer from Churhat named Ashiq Hussain told me. “Two in 1992, and one, Bilal Siddiqui, in 2005.”

But after the killings, residents adorned the village with Pakistani flags. “We felt like our village had got its azaadi,” one middle-aged man told me. “Only last night, around 3 am, the army had come and removed all of them.” In the aftermath of the incident, the army began conducting night raids on houses in the village. One boy was picked up, tortured, and released after three days.

Mukhtar Ahmad Shah, a tall 27-year-old man with expressive eyes, told me that he had been picked up in August 2004, when he was a 14-year-old school student. He was tortured for 29 days to confess that he had carried out a mine blast that killed 33 people in May 2004. “They used to hang us with ropes, and give electric shocks to our genitals,” Shah told me. “They kept asking us to tell what we did. We finally said, ‘We pressed the red button,’ because we saw that in the movies.”

Shah completed a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the central jail in Srinagar, apart from two other vocational courses. He applied for and secured admission to a polytechnic institute, but could not join because he was incarcerated.

During his five years in prison, he saw how people were sucked into lives of violence. “When there is pressure on police, they pick up people,” Shah said. “Ninety percent of the inmates in jail were innocent people, but picked up guns after they were released. I have been seeing them being martyred regularly.”

In 2009, Shah was let off for lack of evidence. He returned home to find that his father, who had a carpet business, had grown mentally unstable, and that his household was ruined. The family had sold all its property to fight his case, and was left with nothing. Shah found a job as a government teacher under the Right to Education programme, which paid him R3,000 a month. He uses this salary now to support his family of seven. He had been awaiting confirmation of permanent employment, but said the process was stalled when, “after 12 years, they said that there is another case from 2004 against me.” He added, “This is how they force people to take drastic measures. Since our family is poor, I didn’t join the militancy.”

Shah’s long spell in prison gave him insight into Kashmir’s conflict economy. He told me that police and army personnel use arrests to make money. “Stone pelters run away and bystanders are picked up,” he said. “There is a list of suspect stone pelters and you will see that the names are of those who can pay money, from well-to-do families. The money collected will go to the police and the informer will get a cut.” He believes an informer in the village, who was jealous of his family, had given his name to the army in 2004. “My father’s business was doing well—we had a big house and three cars,” he told me, sitting in a small, barely lit room in the house he now shares with his uncle’s family.

Shah also spoke about the influence that the valley’s politicians exercise over security forces. “Once they were taking us to the jungle to probably do an encounter,” Shah told me. “Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, the MLA of Kulgam, called the SP and stopped them. Our lawyer, Tasadduq Hussain, had asked him for help.”

The lawyer Ashiq Hussain told me that politicians use this strategy to win the support of voters. “Now you know why people vote and affiliate with political parties,” he said. “If somebody is caught, I will go to police. They will say go to the MLA. There is a nexus.”

This was something I had also heard in 2015. A police officer posted in Anantnag district told me that this kind of strategy helped confer legitimacy on pro-India politicians, such as those of the PDP.

Hussain recounted his own close brush with the security forces, when the army took away his identity card in 2004. He was told to “come to the camp and take it,” he said. The mukhbir, or informer, who had given the army his name, began by demanding R10,000 to return it, but eventually raised the price to R1.2 lakh. “Every village has two, three such people,” he said. “My father had to sell some land to get my name struck off the list.”

Shah and Hussain rubbished the common accusation that protesters in Kashmir were paid to create trouble. “Who will take R500 to pelt stones and take a bullet in return?” Shah asked. The protests were a genuine expression of anger, he said, and not linked to any one incident. “It is not about Burhan so much,” he said. “Look at the ground situation. So much oppression. People pelt stones to be heard.” Hussain agreed that the Indian state’s use of force was fuelling deep resentment among Kashmiris. “Why do we take Pakistan’s name?” he said. “Because we hate India.”

THE PRO-PAKISTANI SYMPATHY of protesters in Kashmir is one of the most widely discussed aspects of the conflict. “There is a strong Pakistan constituency here,” Faisul Yaseen, the political editor of the daily Rising Kashmir, told me. But it remained relatively subdued, he added, “because people have understood that they have to package their aspirations in the form of azaadi for the consumption of international community.” The feeling cuts across different sections of society, and “even the members of PDP, NC and Congress have pro-Pakistan sentiment.”

Yaseen clarified that this didn’t imply that all Kashmiris wanted their region to merge with Pakistan. “But their understanding is, if not for Pakistan, Kashmiris would have been trampled by India by now,” he said. If a plebiscite was held for Kashmiris to decide between India and Pakistan, “most people will vote for Pakistan. If there is a third option, then people will be divided between Pakistan and azaadi.” But, he added, Pakistan’s reputation as a violent state would not appeal to Kashmiris. “Kashmiris are peace-loving people,” he said. “They don’t like mosques being blasted and all that.” The pro-Pakistan sentiment “would have probably gone down with time,” he added, “but the anti-India sentiment has only increased.” As one senior journalist put it to me, “Our generation was anti-India generation, but this one is hate-India generation.”

Yaseen visited Pakistan-administered Kashmir last year, and found that it compared favourably with his homeland. “There are no similar massacres there,” he said. “Nothing compared to what happens here. Maybe the situation is bad in Pakistan, but it’s worse here. There, the perpetrators are non-state actors. Here it is state actors.”

FROM CHURHAT, I rode towards the town of Achabal, taking empty country roads through villages since I had been warned that angry youth had blocked the highway, and were not allowing anyone to pass. After travelling about ten kilometres, the road I was on crossed a dry riverbed. Ascending on the far bank of the river, I found a large log obstructing the way. A group of around 15 children, none of whom looked more than ten years old, stood around the log, stopping anyone who passed. In tones of mock-aggression, they demanded to see my identity card and asked where I was headed.

Just then, a middle-aged man rode towards us on a scooter, from the opposite direction. The children refused to move the log for him. They argued in Kashmiri for several minutes. The man seemed to be chiding the children for being disrespectful. One of the boys, who seemed to be the leader of the group, directed snappish answers at him—but he found it hard to keep eye contact with the man. Finally, the rider squeezed his scooter through the little space there was on one side of the log and rode away. The children looked disappointed.

They were about to challenge me again, but suddenly moved away and hid behind a small wall nearby. I looked at the road ahead and saw two young men driving up towards us in a tractor. Halting the vehicle at the log, they began to hurl questions at me about who I was and what I was doing. “I want to write about your tehreek, and about the protests taking place here,” I said. They didn’t look impressed. “It’s going to be dangerous for you ahead because the boys are quite angry,” one of them said. Revving his engine, he then nudged the log aside with the nose of the tractor, and trundled down the road.

Seeing that their seniors did not have a problem with me, the children now grew friendly. I asked them why they were carrying out their mini-blockade. They replied that it was in response to Burhan’s killing. Some showed me pictures and videos on their phones of Burhan and his group of militants. When I asked if they could share the videos with me, one of them took my phone. Though internet services were down, when he handed it back to me a few minutes later the videos had been transferred to my phone using an app.

In one video, Burhan played cricket in army fatigues. The misspelt watermark on the video said, “Burhan and his companions ying cricket.” Another video showed Burhan and his friends walking through a forest, with an Urdu song penned by a Pakistani poet playing in the background. The song eulogised the bravery and sacrifice of the jihadi fighters: “Chalti bandook ke hum dahane pe hain/ Hum ko maalum hai hum nishane pe hain” (We are facing the muzzle of a firing gun/ We know we are the targets).

Riding on, barely half a kilometre ahead, I came upon a scene that could well have served as inspiration for the children I had passed. Around thirty or forty young men stood on the road, which had been blocked with a row of boulders. Riders on two motorcycles were pleading with the young men to be allowed to pass.

I parked at a distance and watched the scene. After several minutes of heated discussion, one of the riders, a middle-aged, bearded man in a powder-blue pathani suit and a skull cap, seemed to shout some slogans. He was then allowed to pass on one side of the blockade. The man pushed his motorcycle and reached where I stood. When I asked him what had happened, he said, “They asked me to raise slogans of ‘Pakistan zindabad’ and I refused. I agreed to say ‘Burhan zindabad’ and ‘azaadi zindabad.’” Between India and Pakistan, he explained, “If one is an iron cage, then the other is a golden cage. As a Kashmiri, I will opt for azaadi. Why will I choose a cage?”

Seeing that the other rider, a Sikh, had been allowed to pass as well, I gathered some courage and moved towards the men. To my surprise, when I approached, one of them waved me ahead, saying, “Aap jao.” It seemed that they had realised from my deep-brown complexion that I was not Kashmiri, and were less interested in interrogating me. But one young man did oppose this decision, and argued with the first. As the fight between them intensified, and the group gathered around them, another young man told me to pass from the side, which I did.

After several such encounters over a few kilometres, I managed to ride on uninterrupted, passing picturesque villages with apple orchards and verdant rice fields. Shops were shuttered everywhere. There was no sign of the Indian state in these parts—no security personnel or vehicles.

Before reaching Damhal village, I met an old man by the side of the road, listening to the radio while his three-year-old grandson ran around. It was a calm scene that seemed a world away from the turmoil that had engulfed the valley. “We listen to Pakistani radio, especially the 8.30 news,” he said. “Because India says 2,000 injured but Pakistan says 5,000.” I asked him why the youth were so angry. He said that zulm and berozgari—oppression and unemployment—had pushed them into rebellion.

At around 2.30 pm, I reached Achabal. This popular tourist town had seen the worst of the recent violence. Burhan had been killed just 15 kilometres away, and it was in Achabal that the first spontaneous protests broke out as soon as the news of his death spread. Three young men were killed in the town on 9 July, the day after Burhan’s killing, and over 50 were injured.

I stopped at the chowk in the centre of town to talk to some young men who were sitting on the steps of shuttered shops. They told me that protestors began pelting stones at security forces on the evening of 8 July, and stopped only at 1 am.  The next morning, a ghaibana namaz-e-janaza, a funeral in absentia, was performed for Burhan in Achabal, after which local youths went to the town’s police station and began to protest with stone pelting—or “twenty-twenty,” as some youths called it. The protesters grew incensed after the first three deaths. Though at first they proceeded to the police station intending to burn it down, they changed their minds and went instead to the house of a police officer who had fired aggressively that day, and set it ablaze.

I asked the young man about the role of the Kashmiri police. Though usually it is the army and paramilitary forces that are associated with state violence, this time the police, too, had been accused of grave excesses. “Like Indians were part of British Police, Kashmiris are also part of Indian Police,” one of them said. He told me that the security forces had been conducting night raids to pick up stone-pelting boys, so “boys hide in jungles and fields.” By the time they return in the morning, the CRPF makes sure to clear the stones from the street.

I asked the young men whom they followed and how they coordinated protests. “There is no leader this time,” one said. “It’s our own call. No Hurriyat, nobody. Earlier the protests used to die down. But this time, it’s in the hands of the people. This time, we will achieve azaadi, inshallah.” When I asked them if they didn’t fear getting injured or killed, one gave a crisp response: “When India fought for its freedom, did they fear anybody?” Another gave me an example of the protesters’ boldness. “They picked up an eight-year-old here,” he said. “A thousand of us marched to the police station and protested till midnight. We called the tehsildar and the DC. We told them we are ready to die, as many as need be. The DIG released the boy.”

I went with the young men to the home of 22-year-old Khalid Hussain Bhat, who had been injured in the protests. A crowd gathered around us in the first-floor room where Khalid was recuperating. After he was reassured that I was not a threat, Muzaffar Ahmad Bhat, Khalid’s brother, opened up to me. Khalid “was put on a pushcart when he was hit by the bullet,” he told me. He was first taken to a hospital in Anantnag, and then to SMHS Hospital in Srinagar. “We covered him in a white shroud, so the CRPF would believe he is dead,” he said. But those who were attending to him were beaten at the town of Sangam, between Anantnag and Srinagar. “We were attacked three times before we could reach SMHS,” he told me. Though at the time we spoke the official number of people killed was 42, Muzaffar believed that when the internet ban in the state was lifted, the count would rise past 100.
As the discussion veered towards politics, Muzaffar insisted that the Kashmiri resistance movement was moving inexorably towards a conclusion. “India can spend whatever it wants, but that will not help it,” he said. “In less than 100 years, we might be living or not, we will have our freedom, inshallah,” he said. The region had a sound economy, he argued. “Even if we take all the money from the power projects, we will have surplus.”

It was late evening by this time, and I noticed that the people around me were growing anxious. I realised that though they didn’t want to seem impolite and ask me to leave, they were nervous about my presence, since it was almost time for the evening namaz—after which stone-pelting protests would begin. I decided to leave. As I stepped out of the house, they pointed out that all the windows facing the street had been broken by CRPF personnel. These were now covered by bed sheets and woollen blankets—a seemingly common measure under such circumstances across Kashmir. Bidding me goodbye, Muzaffar whispered, “Neeriv khodayas hawale, Khodai karnei reaich” (May god be with you and protect you).

AFTER LEAVING ACHABAL, I rode towards Bijbehara, where the Muftis’ ancestral house is located, and which had seen some of the most intense clashes. At Pazalpora, a village on the outskirts of the town, I saw a large crowd of young men gathered on the road, stopping vehicles from passing. I parked my motorcycle on the side of the road. A group of three men who seemed to know the crowd summoned me for an interrogation. Then, for 20 minutes, I listened while they spoke.

One scowling young man with a beard was particularly angry with the Indian media. “If Bhagat Singh is not a terrorist,” he said, “why do they call Burhan a terrorist? He also threw bombs.” A second chided the army. “If the army is really brave then they should drop their guns and come with stones,” he said. “That would be a fair fight. Then we will know who is brave.”

I asked them whether they wanted Kashmir to become part of Pakistan. “Why do we need Pakistan?” the first man said. “Half of Kashmir is already with Pakistan. Let us first deal with India and win our freedom, then we will take care of Pakistan. We want azaadi, not Pakistan. Those who say ‘Pakistan’ on the streets are mischief-makers, such as the IB agents and the PDP workers.” This antagonism towards the party was remarkable given that Bijbehara has long been its stronghold.

A second young man addressed the common criticism that separatist leaders were hypocritical because they provoked people while letting their own children study in the safety of foreign universities. “The media keeps saying that the children of the separatist leaders are abroad studying, while many other children are dying here,” he said. “When a separatist leader sacrifices his life for the movement, doesn’t his son or daughter have the right to go and study somewhere? Don’t they have the right to study? Do they think our tehreek is the responsibility of one or a few families? It belongs to all of us.” He also directed his ire at Modi. “Kejriwal also said that he has a threat to his life from Modi,” he said. “Things are worse because of him.”

The first man warned me that the crowd ahead was “very angry and aggressive.” One of them “has just sent back his father,” who was trying to pass, he said. Perhaps because I had listened patiently to them, he offered to help me, and sat on the pillion seat of my motorcycle. I rode forward slowly while the crowd stared at me. Seeing that I had the support of one of their own, they let me pass around the barricade. But one of the men seemed frustrated by this, and hurled a plastic bottle in his hand to the ground. The bottle bounced off the ground and fell a few metres short of me. When I had moved about 20 metres past the crowd, my fellow rider got off the motorcycle and bid me farewell.

At around 7 pm that day, I reached Bijbehara. In October 2015, I had interviewed Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s brother in the family’s house. Now, the family had fled to safety. While walking around the locality last year, I saw the letters “HM,” short for Hizbul Mujahideen, written on numerous walls. In November, when three young militants were killed in Sulligam village, 20 kilometres from the town, angry protesters took out a march in Bijbehara and hoisted the Pakistani flag over the Muftis’ residence.

I went to meet the family of the 22-year-old master’s student Amir Nazir Latoo. A student of Aligarh Muslim University, Latoo had come home to celebrate Eid this year, but became the thirty-second to die in the aftermath of Burhan’s killing. The Latoos are neighbours of the Muftis. I spoke with Amir’s father, Nazir, a craftsman who practises Kashmir’s tilla style ofembroidery, on the first floor of his house, behind which flowed the Jhelum.

On the day of the incident, 10 July, Nazir was watching television with his family when he heard “a lot of noise” from across the river. A stationhouse officer, or SHO, of the police, named Arshad Khan, “was beating an old woman,” he said. “Three, four boys, including my son, on this side started heckling.” At this, he said, Khan “fired with his gun across the river, and when the bullet didn’t reach this side, he grabbed a big rifle from a constable and fired again.”

Bullets pierced Amir’s abdomen, liver and lungs. He was placed on a push cart and taken to a hospital in Bijbehara. There, he was put on an intravenous drip and referred to SMHS Hospital in Srinagar. “Just as we were about to leave, nine of us, in the ambulance, the SHO reached the hospital and he broke all the windows of the ambulance and removed the drip,” Nazir said. When some CRPF  personnel witnessed the SHO’s aggression, he said, they “also started beating us. The driver was hurt so badly that he fell on the ground.”

After half an hour, a young man stepped in and drove the ambulance out. The CRPF tried to halt the ambulance at three places, but the driver didn’t stop. At the hospital, Amir underwent surgery for three hours, and was given 14 pints of blood. “At 2 am, he passed away,” Nazir said. “The SHO delayed us by 30 minutes, and crucial time was lost.” According to the official account of the incident, which most Delhi-based media reported, Amir died in a crossfire between police and militants.

When the family was transporting Amir’s body back from the hospital, the Srinagar police stopped them and took them to a police station. They let them leave only after three hours.
Later, “while we were about to bury the body, we saw and removed pieces of glass from his eyes,” Nazir told me. He hasn’t filed an FIR because he doesn’t trust the system, and fears backlash. As Nazir recounted this story, I could hear songs eulogising militants playing from the speakers of a mosque next door.

Although a strict curfew was in place at the time, Amir’s funeral was attended by 20,000 people, according to a report in the Kashmir Reader, making it one of the biggest in the history of the town. In sharp contrast, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s funeral was attended by 5,000 people, according to The Hindu. The town’s shops remained open on the day Sayeed was buried—a clear indication of how unpopular he had become.

According to news reports, SHO Arshad Khan barged into the hospital in Bijbehara three more times over the ensuing weeks, and beat doctors and nurses. Later, in August, the Hurriyat praised the townspeople for ignoring Khan’s warnings not to obey separatist leaders. In a statement, the group said that people of Bijbehara had “challenged the ruthless and arrogant behavior of an Indian stooge in uniform Arshad Khan by opening the shops after 6 pm as per resistance leadership’s programme.” A video of police throwing stones and breaking windows of local houses was widely circulated in the town.

ON MY LAST DAY IN KASHMIR, I went to meet Mirwaiz Umar Farooq at his residence in Nigeen, an upscale locality in Srinagar. He was under house arrest, and journalists were technically barred from interviewing him. He wore a light-purple kurta and showed no signs of being under pressure. Last year, he joined hands with Geelani and Yasin Malik, the state’s other prominent separatist leader, to fight what he considers the central government’s communal agenda.

He said that several factors had contributed to the anger on the streets. People saw the PDP-BJP alliance as a “backstabbing,” he said. “We hoped that the NDA would move forward as it did under Vajpayee, but that’s not been the case. This is basically a Hindutva, RSS agenda.”

Farooq argued that the centre’s plan was clear. “They are talking about cultural and geographical assimilation,” he said. “They are openly talking about bringing about demographic changes and changing the Muslim character of Kashmir. There is an open provocation.”

Farooq claimed that the Indian government had squandered gains it made in the first half of the 2000s, when it engaged in talks with a faction of separatists, led by himself. These ended in 2006. “We felt that we had worked very hard to create a constituency where people felt that we have to engage with India,” he said. “And today there is a situation where nothing is working and India hasn’t moved an inch. People here think dialogue is a waste of time.” The present government, he said, was implementing a “hard-line approach” known as the “Doval Doctrine,” advocated by the national security advisor, Ajit Doval. This strategy, according to Farooq, meant that “the government has been looking at Kashmir from a law-and-order dimension” and a “military point of view,” rather than from a “political point of view.”

But some senior security officers were sceptical of such an approach. “Militarily, there’s not much more to do than we already have done,” the senior military commander DS Hooda told the Associated Press in June 2015. “We’re losing the battle for a narrative.”

Although Farooq conceded that the influence of Pakistan on Kashmiris “is a factor” he argued that the people had come to see theirs as a nationalist struggle. “People see Burhan as a nationalist, whether he was with Hizbul Mujahideen or not,” he said. “It’s difficult for us to justify and tell people not to go that way. They can easily say, ‘Your policies have failed.’ The constituency of dialogue has been maligned by New Delhi.”

Young people had visited Farooq and asked him not to call off the hartals. “They fear that there should be no normalcy like in 2010,” he told me. “They say, ‘Let it be the final nail in the coffin, and tell people to leave everything and come onto the streets.’”

Farooq effectively admitted that the separatist leadership was struggling to control the people. “There is no denying that the present chain of events is not orchestrated by any leader,” he said. “It was a spontaneous reaction.” Anger on the streets was  “so high that the other day we said people could open the shops for a while. There was a sharp reaction that they don’t want to open. But our concern is not to lose more youths.” He added, “The youth on the streets is emotional, he is very angry with the leadership. He has his own ideas and views.”

Farooq thinks the government is waiting for people to tire. “If they are expecting that we will break the hartal, that is not going to happen this time,” he said.

The people of Kashmir had been pushed into a corner, Farooq insisted. “In 2008 and 2010 agitations, there was no militancy,” he said. “They kept agitations peaceful for six years. But when the 2010 agitation was quelled through force, might and iron fist, then you had reactions in south Kashmir. Even we didn’t have any space for six years.” The people’s frustrations had led some to turn to violence. “Every Kashmiri knows that when they pick up a gun, they will one day die,” he said. “They also know that they won’t be able to defeat India militarily, but it is defiance. But the question is, does the government realise that? Do they want another generation of Kashmiris to go that way? Is the government ready to acknowledge that Kashmir is a political problem?”

IN THE FIRST WEEK OF SEPTEMBER, after 74 people had already been killed, an all-party delegation led by the home minister, Rajnath Singh, and comprising 28 MPs from 20 parties, reached Srinagar. It was Singh’s third visit to the valley since the protests had broken out.

In 2010, Geelani and other leaders had met a similar delegation. This time, however, the separatist leaders were under tremendous popular pressure not to lend the delegation any legitimacy.  Geelani refused to grant the MPs an audience. “It was a very, very disturbing experience to be there in this time in Srinagar,” said Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Yechury and a group of five MPs from the delegation travelled to Geelani’s residence, in hopes of meeting the leader, but were turned away. He said that he had “not seen the degree of alienation so deep any time before.”

Singh declared that the leaders’ behaviour “is not Kashmiriyat and it can’t be called insaniyat,” or humanity. “And if someone goes for talks and they didn’t talk,” he added, “they don’t believe in jamhooriyat,” or democracy. The Hurriyat responded with a statement accusing the government of trying to portray the delegation as a “favour” to Kashmiris. “The sole intention of the delegation was to act as firefighting just to derail and fizzle the current movement out,” it said.

The Indian government has, over the years, usually allowed separatist leaders to conduct some political activity. In times of crisis, these leaders have then stepped in to influence people and calm tempers. But the current BJP-led government, since coming to power, has placed the three major separatist leaders—Geelani, Farooq and Malik—under house arrest for extended periods.

“The response of this government has been that of indifference, and total chaos,” a senior Kashmiri journalist close to the Hurriyat told me. “Congress did similar things, but they used to reach out politically. This government cancelled talks with Hurriyat and sidelined the Hurriyat leaders. Now, how will they go to them and ask for a dialogue?” According to this journalist, “Doval has, for some reason, pathological hatred towards Geelani’s Hurriyat.”

In contrast, DS Hooda saw the separatist leaders as crucial to finding a solution. In a press conference on 19 August in Srinagar, the military commander said his “appeal to everyone, including the separatists,” was to “join hands to restore peace, as a single party can’t do it alone.”

Though the government did climb down from its hawkish stance after the protests, it still made clear missteps.  In August, Singh sought the advice of “eminent Muslims” to defuse the crisis—but most of these individuals were non-Kashmiri Muslims. (The group included the former Orissa High Court judge Ishrat Masroor Quddusi, the former Rajya Sabha member Shahid Siddiqui and the security analyst Qamar Agha.) Many saw the move as proof that the government saw what was largely a political problem through a communal lens.

A senior journalist in the valley argued that the resistance movement was not founded on religion. “We were unaffected during the Gujarat riots of 2002,” he said. A former bureaucrat from Kashmir echoed this view. “Everybody is not fighting for religion,” he said. “They are fighting for a cause. Religion is a binding force. Here we have 99 percent Muslims, so naturally it comes into play. Religion helps us cope with suffering.”

Another senior Kashmiri journalist, who had knowledge of the government’s meeting with the eminent individuals, told me that the government’s attitude at the meeting betrayed an ignorance of the Kashmir problem. “They were talking about the situation as if it was a communal riot that took place in one of the Indian cities and you go out to put out the flames,” he said with a laugh.  According to him, the BJP wanted to use the situation in Kashmir to its advantage in the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh. “They want to appease their constituency first to show that they acted tough on Kashmir.”

On 9 September, not long after Geelani snubbed the all-party delegation, Singh told reporters in Goa that the situation in Kashmir was “under better control than earlier. And I can say that in the coming days, the situation will be under complete control.”

Geelani did not appear to agree. The same morning, he called for an “important” press conference at his residence. But as journalists tried to reach his house, hundreds of police and CRPF personnel stopped them. “An 86 year old leader wanted to hold a presser. Govt sends 300 police to stop him. Democracy. 10/10,” Sameer Bhat, a Kashmiri journalist, tweeted.
Geelani’s intended remarks were later emailed to journalists. It was perhaps one of the most unequivocal statements by a leader in the history of Kashmiri resistance. “Never before have we been so close to freedom with such clarity as we are now,” Geelani wrote. “We have reached this stage because the people of Jammu and Kashmir have not only resisted the brute military occupation of India with exemplary courage and sacrifices but also repeatedly shown that the people would not be defeated.”

Despite fighting “a massive infrastructure of military occupation and other instruments of control,” he wrote, Kashmir’s “spirit for the struggle for freedom has been seamlessly passed on to the next generation.” The state’s brutality was a sign of its weakness, he argued. “The greatest sign of our victory is that the mighty army of our occupier has to shoot dead middle-aged women, a 21-year-old girl, and beat to death a teacher,” he said. The leader described “the bullets of Indian soldiers” as “merely the symbols of their cowardice.”

“Shaken by our resolve and our united struggle for freedom,” Geelani concluded, “India has once again started the farce of engagement that it time and again has used to divert attention from the reality on the ground here. They will come again to ask—what do we want. They know the answer to that question. We want freedom.”

The story originally stated that news reports indicated that the militant Abu Qasim’s funeral was attended by “more than 5,000 people.” This has been changed to “close to 50,000 people” to more accurately most estimates of the turnout. The Caravan regrets the error.

ON 8 JULY, INDIAN SECURITY FORCES killed the 21-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani in Kashmir’s Anantnag district. Anger immediately erupted in the valley, and protestors took to the streets in their thousands, even in towns and villages that were usually unaffected by past agitations. Protestors blocked roads, imposed shutdowns, shouted anti-India slogans and pelted stones at security personnel who tried to restrain them.

When I travelled through Kashmir in July, most people I spoke to felt that Burhan’s killing was followed by a dramatic upsurge in the Kashmiri resistance movement. “He openly challenged the mighty Indian state,” a Kashmiri journalist told me. “No more hiding guns under the pheran. No more using pseudonyms. No more hiding behind a mask. That appealed to the people who have been suppressed under the fear of large-scale military presence.” Burhan, he added, “brought the discussion back to the dinner table.”

As in 2010, when the valley last witnessed protests of this scale, the Indian government responded with crushing force, deploying army and paramilitary personnel, who fired at protesters in several places across Kashmir. At the time this story went to press, 89 civilians had been killed, and more than 13,000 injured.

In 2010, several separatist leaders—most prominently Syed Ali Shah Geelani—had been at the forefront of the agitations. These leaders regularly issued calendars that told protesters when to begin agitations, when to halt them, when to take out marches, when to visit the families of the dead and the injured, and even when to go shopping. The protesters obeyed unquestioningly. There was little doubt that Geelani was the leader of the Kashmiri resistance—perhaps the first such figure since Sheikh Abdullah five decades earlier.

This year was different. Several people, including protesters, police personnel and ordinary Kashmiris, told me that the agitations were spontaneous and leaderless, and that Geelani and other leaders did not wield the kind of clout they once did. Though the leaders issued calendars, young Kashmiris in particular demanded more aggressive protests. In Sopore, Geelani’s stronghold, youth had criticised and flouted his call to relax their hartal after 2 pm, a young man from the town told me. The leaders’ shaky hold over protesters was also evident from the repeated statements they issued, asking people to follow their calendars, and warning that those who didn’t would be deemed to be against the movement.

The protests have been raging on for more than two months. On 18 September, a squad of four fidayeen militants attacked an army camp in the town of Uri, close to the Pakistan border, killing 18 Indian soldiers. In the days that followed, the intensity of protests dropped briefly. A volunteer at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, or SMHS Hospital, in Srinagar, told me that there had been “no injuries from two, three days except casual incidents.”

As the Indian government made angry statements against Pakistan, and television anchors called for war, Geelani released his own statement. He declared that when scores of protesters “fell to bullets and pellets, thousands were maimed, properties worth millions ransacked and hundreds lost their vision,” no one extended support to them. “What kind of philosophy,” he said, “makes you mourn the Uri episode but derive pleasure from the massacre in Kashmir?”

I LANDED IN SRINAGAR on the morning of 23 July, 15 days after Burhan’s death. By then, 45 young protesters had died at the hands of security forces, and the valley had been under continuous curfew. The flight I took was half empty, mostly occupied by Kashmiris and pilgrims bound for the Amarnath shrine in south Kashmir. When we arrived, officials told the pilgrims that they could only leave for the shrine after midnight, and that only one route, through north Kashmir, was available to them. South Kashmir was under complete shutdown.

The driver of the taxi I booked at the airport looked surprised when he learnt I was headed for Rawalpora, a locality that tourists seldom visited. He seemed worried about what we might encounter on the way. I asked him why. Weren’t curfews a way of life here? What was new this time? Looking ahead at the empty road, he said, “Our leader Burhan has been martyred, so all of Kashmir is up in flames.”

I have reported several times from the valley since 2008, but I had never seen ordinary Kashmiris embrace militants so openly. Something fundamental had changed, as I would discover over the week I spent travelling across the valley, speaking to people. Kashmiris spoke about their political convictions far more openly than before, and even excoriated respected separatist leaders such as Geelani—something that would have been unthinkable in the past.

Along the route to Rawalpora, small groups of paramilitary soldiers and police wearing riot-gear stood on either side of the road. Guns and tear-gas canisters hung from their shoulders. Apart from two vegetable sellers on the pavement and pharmacies with their shutters halfway down, there was little activity on the streets. While some areas in Srinagar have seen regular protests over the years, this year, upper-middle-class localities such as Rawalpora and Sanat Nagar, which had earlier largely remained unaffected, also witnessed fierce agitations.

That afternoon, I reached SMHS Hospital, named after an autocratic former ruler of Kashmir who acceded to India instead of Pakistan at the time of Partition. On a glass door and one wall, someone had scribbled the words “Indian media and dogs not allowed,” venting the anger that many Kashmiris felt towards hawkish television anchors and other journalists.

In the past, injured protesters avoided visiting government medical facilities such as SMHS Hospital altogether, for fear that the police would arrest them there. This time, however, there had been a deluge of injured Kashmiris at all the hospitals.

I headed to a ward reserved for those with pellet injuries: people who had been shot with pellet guns, which Indian security forces use in the valley as a tool of crowd control. Many of those in the ward had been shot in the face, often severely damaging their eyes. Young boys sat with bandages covering their eyes, wearing dark glasses, looking lost. Their family members next to them appeared equally forlorn. People spoke in hushed tones, and a deep sadness filled the space. I couldn’t bring myself to pierce the silence and interview the families. “Kashmir is full of graveyards of martyrs,” a journalist told me. “But these blinded youth are going to be the living memorials, reminding people in their families and localities, as long as they live, of the brutality of the Indian state.”

A few corridors away, young men with bullet injuries were housed in the surgery block. This room had more light, and was suffused with some sense of hope of recovery. But people in the hospital were suspicious of me. As I spoke to the injured, volunteers came up a few times and demanded to see my identity card. They wanted to make sure that I was a journalist and not a policeman taking notes. Volunteers asked more than once which television channel I worked for, and seemed reassured when I said I worked for a magazine. It helped that I knew one of them from earlier visits to Kashmir.

The families of several of the injured youth had not learnt for some days that their loved ones were in a Srinagar hospital, because transport and communication facilities had been shut down. Aijaz, the brother of 19-year-old Shabbir Ahmad Rather of Zoohama village, located south of Srinagar, told me that his brother had been severely beaten and tortured by personnel of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force. He said the village sarpanch got Shabbir released from CRPF custody,and he was brought to the Srinagar hospital. “I came walking for 26 kilometres looking for him,” Aijaz said. “Then I went home after two, three days and told my family that he’s not dead, and came back walking all the way to be with him.”

Aijaz said that his village had remained calm at first, after Burhan was killed. “But they imposed curfew to stop people from going to his funeral,” he said. “That’s when the protests started.” Though the Kashmiri resistance movement had been underway for three decades, he added, they had “not seen such brutality” before this year. “Tomorrow, I might join,” he said. “Look at my brother. We are even ready to take a bullet now. If there is no decision this time, there never will be.” The emotions of the valley’s youth were so charged, he said, that their “parents also don’t ask, ‘Where are you going?’” when they leave the house. “Burhan might have had 20 people with him,” Aijaz added, “but now there will be thousands.”

Farooq Ahmad Bhat, a 48-year-old driver who was taking care of his daughter on the next bed, joined the conversation. “Hindustan bolta hai ki Kashmir uska atoota ang hai, lekin us ang pe kabhi dard nahin hota hai” (India says Kashmir is an integral part of its body, but they don’t feel the pain of that part), he said. He cited the Jat protests of June in Haryana as evidence that the government was biased. “They went on a rampage but did the police use pellet guns against them?” he asked. “No. Why only here? Because this is a Muslim state.” But Kashmiris wouldn’t be cowed down, he added. “We Kashmiris keep rations for two, three months,” he said. “People in Delhi will die in ten days. Not us. There is a call from the youth this time to Geelani to keep it going as long as it takes.”

Though Burhan’s funeral was one of the biggest Kashmir has ever seen, those of other slain militants in the past few years have also drawn huge crowds. The political reverberations of these, however, did not reach Srinagar till Burhan’s death. Riyaz Ahmad Bhat, a 30-year-old medical representative from Kakapora village in Pulwama district in south Kashmir, around 30 kilometres from Srinagar, told me about one such militant, named Abdul Rehman, who was better known as Abu Qasim. Qasim, who carried a bounty of R20 lakh on his head, died in an encounter in October 2015. “He used to work as a labourer initially, sometimes sold chana, for some time he was a conductor too,” Bhat said with awe. “But when he got exposed, he went underground.” The police credit Qasim with some major attacks on security forces, including the killing of a counter-insurgency officer named Altaf Ahmad in October 2015.

After his killing, Qasim was buried in the village of Bugam in Kulgam district, though residents of Kakapora demanded that they be allowed to take his body to their village. His funeral was attended by more than 50,000 people, according to news reports. Attendees also attacked the nearest CRPF battalion camp.

Riyaz told me that three people from Kakapora had already died in the current protests. He was eager that I understand just how much they supported militants. “We have saved four mujahids from a live encounter in Naman village last year,” he said. I asked him how. “People of all ages leave theirhouses and go towards the encounter sites and pelt stones,” he said. “Police don’t dare to come to the villages in our area. When people are picked up in the night, they announce it on the mosque’s loudspeaker and people come out to protest.”

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Praveen Donthi is a Staff Writer at The Caravan. He is trained as a researcher in modern Indian history and became a journalist by accident. He has previously worked for Tehelka, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald.

READER'S COMMENTS

22 thoughts on “The Iron Cage”

So that is you only counter point ? But you do agree this is a Hindu Muslim problem not the akhand bharat crap that comes from your jhandelwalan HQ.

Could you publish another article on “How Abraham Lincoln Failed When He Sppressed the South’s Bid for Independence”?

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