THE NEW FOUR-LANE HIGHWAY connecting Srinagar and Jammu is supposed to have reduced the travel time across the Kashmir Valley. But in the weeks I spent there in August, each time I tried to go to south Kashmir, I was held up in blockades that lasted up to an hour. It was on this highway, in Pulwama, that a suicide bomber attacked a Central Reserve Police Force convoy in February this year, killing over forty personnel. The blast happened where the road slopes upward and traffic slows down—probably to inflict the most damage. In the aftermath of the attack, the government completely banned civilian movement from Udhampur in Jammu to Baramulla in north Kashmir on two days of the week, to facilitate the movement of armed-forces convoys. The highway has since been repaired, but vehicles passing over the spot can still feel a bump.
While I was there, this highway brought in convoys at various times on all days except Friday. When a convoy passes, all other traffic is brought to an immediate halt. Armoured vehicles and security forces block the way, the sense of emergency evident in the shrill sound of their whistles. The traffic piles up—even ambulances are not allowed to move. Most passengers dare not step out, but some become impatient and get out of their cars. They stand about, looking at the convoy and commenting on it, as if chatting about the weather.
One day in late August, I watched as a family with an ailing child drove down the wrong side just to be able to move. The child sat in the lap of the passenger, and the driver held a pink medical report out of the window, waving at the security-forces personnel to let them pass. After getting a go-ahead over wireless radio, the personnel allowed the car to go. The vehicles in the convoy that day were a curious mix: private buses, trucks, minivans and even Taveras. Some took a right turn and went towards the Tral and Pulwama districts; the rest kept moving towards Srinagar. Most of the uniformed personnel sitting inside these vehicles were asleep. Bystanders tried to guess the name of the force by their uniforms.
As word of the never-ending convoys travelled, Kashmir became rife with speculation of either a full-scale crackdown in the Valley—“It has been peaceful, why are they bringing in more forces?”—or a war with Pakistan. One middle-aged man standing in front of me on the road turned back to say something. When he realised that I am not Kashmiri, he said, “Kashmiri ko maarne ke liye itne forces chahiye kya?”—Do you need so many forces to kill Kashmiris? I wondered if the state, with Pulwama on its mind, was as scared as it made the people feel.
THE NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR, Ajit Doval, arrived in Kashmir on 6 August, the day after the Indian government announced that it was revoking the state’s special status, enshrined in Article 370 of the Constitution, and transforming the state into two union territories. It then launched a complete clampdown in the Valley, blocking roads, imposing curfew and cutting off internet and phone connectivity. Since 1 August, the Indian government has moved over 80,000 troops into the region, which was already the most militarised zone in the world.
The crackdown was ongoing when Doval left the Valley, on 16 August, amid applause by his cheerleaders in the national media. Kashmiris “see greater opportunities, a better future, more jobs for youths,” he said upon his return to Delhi, while interacting with select journalists. “There is a vocal minority that opposes it. It appears to people that that is the voice of the people. That is not necessarily true.”
How Doval reached this conclusion is reflected in a video from his visit to Anantnag, released by ANI. He is seen asking a teenage boy, “Khush ho?”—Are you happy? An elderly man standing next to Doval replies, “Khush kahan hai? Aap batate hain, khush kaun hai yahan?”—Who is happy? You tell us who is happy here. Doval smiles and says, “Bachhe toh khush hote hain”—The children are happy. The elderly man again says, “Koi khush nahi hain yahan”—Nobody is happy here. Doval moves on to the next person, as does the camera.
My visit to Kashmir overlapped with that of the NSA. I reached on 11 August, a day before Eid, and stayed there for two weeks. I travelled extensively, from Kulgam in the south to Uri in the north. It was not difficult to find images of supposed normalcy—a place such as Srinagar, which has been the epicentre of the conflict in the Valley since the 1990s, is hardened. Despite the restrictions, people sometimes step out just to get a breath of fresh air. Driving past the deserted Dal Lake one day, I saw a man sitting alone, completely immersed in fishing. Had the media published his image—a silhouette against a golden sunset of early autumn—it would have been seen as proof of peaceful everydayness. Most visiting journalists did, in fact, return with equivalent images.
The Indian government has devised certain indicators to find and prove normalcy in Kashmir: the number of primary schools reopened, the number of police stations that have relaxed restrictions in their neighbourhood, the number of active landlines in an age of mobile phones. Reducing an entire people to a few conveniently chosen activities, it has, in effect, declared that only violent deaths in clashes with security forces will be considered abnormal.
To understand Kashmir today, however, it is important to understand how everyday life is being lived. The insularity of the Valley was so intense that it seemed to have gone back in time. People were bringing out old radios and DVD players, and cycles to get around. “Don’t throw anything away in Kashmir; it’s gone back twenty to thirty years,” a Srinagar resident said, not entirely in jest. Most newspapers had stopped publication. The largest daily, Greater Kashmir, published only four pages and carried no news that contradicted the government’s narrative. Its main utility became the classifieds page, where many announced cancellations of weddings and other events, “due to prevailing situation in the Valley.”
Though the government claimed the restrictions would gradually be removed, nobody believed it. Most people told me they expected the restrictions to continue until at least the winter. In the past, separatist leaders—Syed Ali Shah Geelani most prominent among them—had led agitations in the Valley, calling for protests and shutdowns. But even young kids knew that this time, it was not Geelani who had given them holidays. It was Narendra Modi.
It is easier to explain with stories from other countries, and other times. “In every war zone, there is another battle, a shadow conflict that rages quietly behind the scenes,” the American journalist Annia Ciezadlo writes in her book Day of Honey, set in war-ravaged Iraq and Lebanon. “You don’t see much of it on television or in the movies. This hidden war consists of the slow but relentless destruction of everyday civilian life: The children can’t go to school. The pregnant woman can’t give birth at a hospital. The farmer can’t plow his fields. The musician can’t play his guitar. The professor can’t teach her class. For civilians, war becomes a relentless accumulation of can’ts.”
Telecommunications were replaced by word of mouth, and journalism by the telling and retelling of stories. Every now and then, wandering journalists brought a new set of rumours to the press club, which were then analysed threadbare. Most conversations would lead to, and end with, the mention of war. “All this talk of war, what do you think it is?” a senior journalist asked me. He answered his own question: “Fatalism. Depression.”
Some of the journalists took these grim thoughts home and spent sleepless nights. Others took it upon themselves to cheer up their companions, puncturing the melancholia with the dark humour that lurks around every corner in Kashmir. Misfortune touched the families of the local journalists too. Another senior journalist, who had been away for a couple of days, told me on his return that his mother, a cancer patient, had a medical emergency one night. Out of sheer desperation to make a call, he knocked on the doors of the closest CRPF camp. Journalists had become their own stories.
The effective abrogation of Article 370 is the biggest political tremor to have hit the Valley since 1947. Its enormity sent Kashmir into a huddle of self-reflection. Every person in Kashmir is otherwise an island of political opinion. But remarkably, even without any modern forms of conferring, different corners of the Valley were unified in their thoughts, reactions and emotions about this move. The most striking of these was the ready and untroubled acceptance of militancy by people of all political hues, including mainstream leaders and supporters, who had previously been sworn to the Indian state. The Indian government has rubbished this fact, terming it alarmist. But even as the government hides behind its own narrative, the Valley is rumbling, deep inside, like a dormant volcano.
TRAGEDIES LIE IN WAIT in unexpected corners of Kashmir. On 23 August, the nineteenth day since the clampdown began, 18-year-old Adil Hussain Dar was playing cricket with his friends, next to a railway track in the village of Sebdan, in Budgam district, about twenty kilometres from Srinagar. When they heard the sound of tear-gas shelling “two kilometres away,” the young men darted helter-skelter. Adil ran towards the tracks, stumbled and fell. “We saw him lying there,” his friend Wahid told me. “He was in a lot of pain. His stomach area was very hard.”
Three of his friends took Adil on a scooter to a local hospital, where they were asked to go to the district hospital. There, they were referred to the SKIMS Medical College and Hospital Bemina, in Srinagar, and eventually to the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Soura. There were many security barriers and incidents of stone pelting along the way, so they took the longer route and arrived in Soura by 10.30 pm. Adil was unconscious and put on oxygen support. There were no phones, so Adil’s father, Mohammad Mustafa Dar, who works as a security guard in the upscale Hyderpora area of Srinagar, was informed only after 9 pm. Adil’s liver had been severely punctured, and there was a lot of internal bleeding. The doctors performed a surgery, from 12.30 am to 2.30 am. “When the doctors opened his stomach, blood gushed out,” Wahid said, miming a fountain with his hands. “We gave him five pints of blood. The doctors said they will perform another surgery after two days to join the liver parts, but the chances of survival are only twenty percent.”
I learnt of this incident the day after it took place, when I had gone to a friend’s home in Hyderpora, to figure out how to book an air ticket. I met Adil’s father and his friends. Four of his friends were staying at the hospital. Two days later, Adil had regained consciousness, but was still fighting for his life.
Adil’s near-death did not disturb the surface calm of Kashmir, and remained unknown even to members of his extended family. Its quotidian detail was hardly different from the stories of Osaib Altaf and Asrar Khan—except for the end.
Altaf, a 17-year-old from Palpora in Srinagar, was playing football with his friends near his home when they were chased away by CRPF personnel. The young men ran onto a footbridge to escape and, when cornered on both sides, jumped into the Jhelum river. Altaf tried hanging on to the bushes on the bank, but the CRPF personnel hit him on his hands. He slid back into the river. He was fished out after twenty minutes and taken to the hospital, but was declared dead on arrival. Though his father wanted him buried in the local graveyard, people in the community declared Altaf a shaheed, and buried him in the martyr’s graveyard at Eidgah.
An 18-year-old from the Ilahibagh locality of Srinagar, Asrar was injured on 6 August while playing cricket in his neighbourhood park. His X-ray confirmed that he was hit by pellets, which were lodged in his skull and eyes. He died of his injuries almost a month later. Munir Khan, the additional director general of police, said at a press conference that Asrar died after he was hit by a stone thrown by protesters.
Two other people—35-year-old Fehmeeda Bano and 55-year-old Ayoub Khan—have died of suffocation due to teargas. According to her death certificate, Bano, a mother of two, died due to “sudden pulmonary cardiac arrest.” Khan’s family has not been given any certificate.
In this ongoing siege, the government has turned Kashmir into a graveyard of sublimated tragedies. Everyone is left wondering whether there are more such stories, from other places in the city and the Valley, but they do not ask, lest the enormity of the crisis get overwhelming.
ON THE ELEVENTH DAY of the Indian government’s clampdown—16 August—the United Nations Security Council discussed Kashmir for the first time since 1971. China, a permanent member, backed Pakistan’s demand for a meeting, which took place behind closed doors. Some teenaged boys burst crackers in parts of Srinagar. People keenly followed Pakistani news channels—the source they trusted—on cable television for updates on the talks. The Indian government promptly snapped cable access.
A couple of days later, five teenagers were picked up from Srinagar’s Mehjoor Nagar. I went to meet some of the families in the locality. Of the five boys, three were being held at the police station, and two were made to stay there from morning till evening. None of them have been officially detained. They were at the Rajbagh police station—the nearest police station, in Baghat, was already packed.
I met the father of one of the teenagers. Fayaz Ahmed Laway is a fruit vendor. His son, a 14-year-old named Zahid, was picked up in the middle of the night. “They raided at 2 am,” Laway told me. “Zahid is my youngest kid. I showed them the other kids, but they knew whom they wanted. They warned me not to shout. After they left, I realised probably others in the neighbourhood have been picked up too.”
If they do not find the sons, they take away the fathers. As I was speaking to Laway, other men joined in. One told me that a father had been taken away and was being held until his son is found. Another’s two sons had also been taken way. One man began discussing the teenagers who had been picked up. He said that perhaps the boys knew that “Kashmir will be sold out.” He was angry, and began shouting. “The bastards have killed 370,” he said. “Why is stone pelting and bursting crackers a crime? Today it’s their kids; tomorrow it could be mine. This is a war, and this will continue.”
The man told me that he had driven a truck of apples to Gujarat in 2002, when the post-Godhra pogrom took place. Many Kashmiris feel so threatened by the Indian government’s actions that they fear being silently wiped out, if Pakistan were to stop raising this issue at international fora. “It is god’s grace and Pakistan behind us, otherwise there would have been a Godhra massacre here,” the man said. “They think this is some mohalla of Gujarat. This is Kashmir. This is Kashmir. This is not about 370 or 35A, the bottom line is, this is a Hindu–Muslim issue.”
At the Bandipore police station in north Kashmir too, I saw three young boys—students of the seventh, eighth and ninth standards—lodged in the lock-up. A Kashmiri journalist who had interviewed them was detained for three hours, and let go only after he deleted all his notes. One of the boys told the journalist that one of his teachers, who had discussed the pros and cons of Article 370 at school, had also been arrested.
Mir Urfi, a lawyer, has been arguing several cases on behalf of Kashmiris who have been detained under the brutal Public Safety Act. The legislation allows security forces to detain anyone, without a formal charge, for up to two years without trial. I met Urfi, who is handling these cases pro bono, at the Srinagar district court. It was nearly empty, except for a few people who were present for urgent matters. “A lot of people were arrested a week in advance, some with PSA FIRs and some without FIRs,” Urfi told me. “Five lawyers have been arrested under PSA all over Kashmir. The district magistrate has no powers to send people for detention outside the Valley. So the DM detains a person for 12 days here in Srinagar Central Jail first, then the home department issues an order to shift him outside Kashmir.” People from Kashmir are lodged at various places in Uttar Pradesh. “They first book them under the Unlawful Activities Act”—which allows detention for six months without trial—“and then, when it’s over, they book them under the PSA,” Urfi said.
She gave me an example of a frivolous case, about some Kashmiris who celebrated the New Zealand cricket team’s win against India in the semi-finals of the World Cup by bursting crackers. They were booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The intimidation is so widespread that when the president of the state’s bar association, Mian Qayoom, was arrested, the members of the bar did not even issue a statement of protest. Nazir Ahmad Ronga, a senior lawyer, was also detained. The grounds of detention—a formal document addressed to the detainee, authored by the senior superintendent of the police and submitted before a district magistrate for approval—accused Ronga of being a separatist and secessionist. It then said, “Your capacity can be gauged from this fact that you were able to convince your electorate to come out and vote in huge numbers during poll boycotts.”
Perhaps the most prominent Kashmiri detained under the PSA after 5 August is Farooq Abdullah, who is a known mainstream politician. In September, news broke that the 83-year-old former chief minister, who had been put under house arrest at the very beginning of the clampdown, was being detained under the PSA. He was accused of “disturbing public order,” an offense that allows detention up to three months. The PSA was enacted in 1978, when Farooq’s father, Sheikh Abdullah, was chief minister.
Going by the accounts I heard and are being reported, the probable number of people detained is shockingly high. According to Reuters, the security forces have detained close to four thousand people, but most on the ground believe the numbers are several times higher. It is impossible to be sure. The administration has devised many ways to keep the detentions off the record. One of these is to not acknowledge or provide such data. In mid September, activists filed a public-interest litigation in the Supreme Court, demanding action against the detention of children in Kashmir.
There have been many reports of torture as well. In late August and early September, after the Indian government had spent weeks making mendacious claims about an all-pervasive peace in the Valley, journalists working for foreign media organisations such as the BBC, Associated Press and AFP managed to go to the villages of south Kashmir and publish stories of torture by security forces during night raids. Torture is built into militarised societies, so the news did not surprise most Kashmiris. Neither did the fact that the government and the army promptly denied all allegations.
International agencies such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, and even members of the United States Congress, have expressed concern for human-rights violations in the Valley. In late August, the external-affairs minister S Jaishankar met with European officials who expressed similar concerns. Later, Jaishankar said in an interview that there would be a reduction of troops in the Valley. This is in line with what the Modi government has been saying, but is yet to be reflected on the ground.
I MET SAIBA VARMA, a medical anthropologist from the United States who has been studying the Kashmir conflict and its effect on the people for over a decade. She had arrived in the Valley on 1 August. Varma described the ongoing siege in psychological terms, as “more like an assault on the spirit rather than the body.”
“It is about wearing people down,” Varma told me. “It is about breaking their spirit, by not even allowing them to share even the most basic level of information.” However, she added, the existential rage that resulted from such conflict had also built up the Kashmiri people’s resilience. “You see the ways in which communities are able to galvanise instantly—anytime there’s a siege that happens, people know how to live,” she said, “whether it’s finding ways of distributing food and milk, or distributing money through baitulmal”—community fundraising.
Varma discussed the psychological toll of the conflict on people, owing to things such as “the inability to make even the most basic decisions about your life, like whether or not to send your child to school on a particular day, being told that it’s safe but all your experiential knowledge telling you that it’s not safe.” Living with that kind of uncertainty, she said, “just erodes a fundamental part of yourself, which is about needing a basic amount of stability and certainty to live.” She cautioned, however, against looking at Kashmir through the lens of victimhood. “There’s that tendency in the media to paint that Kashmiris are traumatised, Kashmiris have these really high rates of PTSD,” she said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. “It becomes as if they’re suffering from medical problems, when those medical problems are just rooted in political assertion and existential needs, demands.”
I asked Varma if, according to her, the lack of large-scale protests in the Valley had to do with increased military presence. “There’s so much pressure on Kashmiris to always display their humanity,” she said. The state, she added, “has already labelled them as terrorists, as criminals, as inhumane and as violent, and is looking for any sign of that violence or that criminality, to then come down really hard on that. I think Kashmiris recognise that: that they’re being tested at every moment.”
DURING MY TRIP TO BANDIPORE, a hilly region on the banks of the Wular Lake in north Kashmir, a young man from a village called Saderkoot Bala told me that they were going to observe a “civil curfew”—where people voluntarily impose a shutdown—starting 18 August. He said that Geelani had called for a civil curfew. When I asked him how the news had reached him, he said, “We just know it.” I was amused and did not take him seriously. The next day, I went to Anantnag in south Kashmir, where the residents had already been observing civil curfew. But a local man said that it would be strictly followed from the next day.
The first day of the civil curfew coincided with the decision to reopen primary schools. The government’s gambit failed. The schools were thinly attended, and the ones that opened were mostly in areas with army cantonments. That day, I met a mid-level police officer in Srinagar, who was racking his brains about the imposition of a civil curfew despite the communications blockade. “For more than ten days there had been no action,” he said. “Now, from north to south, there are sporadic protests and also civil curfew. This is a coordinated upsurge. We are surprised.” One professor told me, “The state may take people by surprise, but people also can take the state by surprise.”
“Kashmiris are forced to think through their bellies now,” a senior journalist told me. He said that, as a people living in a conflict zone, Kashmiris have become cunning and complicated. “If they step out for activities linked to their livelihood, then it is shown as normalcy by the government. So, people have become manipulative to survive.”
The senior journalist also told me that, sooner or later, partially or completely, rumours in Kashmir turn out to be true. Various rumours caught on in mid August: that people were being prevented from going to the popular hill station of Gulmarg; that nobody is allowed to go beyond Sheeri village on the way to the border town of Uri; that all Kashmiri employees working at the Badamibagh army cantonment and the airport had been sent on a long leave; that anti-aircraft guns had been perched on top of the Shankaracharya hill in Srinagar. In the absence of any news or communications, rumours begat fear, and only one conclusion: war.
Two other journalists and I decided to go to Uri to see for ourselves. At 10 am, Uri’s main market was shut, except for a medical shop and a couple of vegetable sellers. At first, nobody wanted to speak to a journalist. One man told me, “Aaj jo bhi sach bolega woh andar jayega,”—Whoever tells the truth will go to jail. After some persuasion, they told me that the market had not been shut even during the militancy of the 1990s. “We used to keep it open even when there was shelling on the border nearby,” a middle-aged man told me. He said that after curfew was imposed in the area, on 5 August, a large number of Border Security Force personnel were deployed in Uri. “After they left, we imposed civil curfew of our own accord.” I met a government employee who works in Kupwara, a hundred kilometres away. For three days, he had been turning back midway, as there was no transport.
The owner of Malik Medical Hall, a pharmacy, told me that three quarters of their stock had run out, including medicines for diabetes and illnesses related to high blood pressure. “Those are life-saving drugs,” he said. “Antibiotics can be replaced and has alternatives, but not things such as insulin. We are running out of milk powder too.” The government and the administration have repeatedly insisted that there is no shortage of medicines in Kashmir. “I have been running this shop for thirty years now, and this happened for the first time,” the owner told me. “They should at least make it available at the local government hospitals.”
A small tea shop was open, though its door was closed. We went inside and began talking to the people there. One of them turned out to be a village sarpanch. “Main kattar Hindustani hoon,” he said. “Lekin khoon mein kutte daudte hain jab Hindustani media baat karte hain”—I’m a staunch Indian, but my blood boils when Indian media talks about Kashmir. “In Uri, people voted at ninety percent. We know the ways of Pakistan, as we live on the border. We were with India. But now India has broken that bridge. If they finish 370, then they should’ve finished 371 in places like Himachal Pradesh and other states,” he said. Article 371 of the Constitution grants special provisions to various Indian states, such as Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat.
“After seventy years of fighting for India, look at Farooq Abdullah,” the sarpanch said, referring to Abdullah’s house arrest—at the time, neither of us knew that Abdullah would be held under the PSA. “Farooq went to mata ka mandir and put on tika,” he added, referring to Farooq’s pro-India politics. “Look at what happened to him. What do you think will happen to us?”
The sarpanch told me he was not very worried about losing land to outsiders. “It will affect Jammu more,” he said. “There is no power in the world that could set up a colony in Kashmir without people’s consent. There is a ghost of azadi”—freedom—“inside us.” He told me that the people of Uri were looking at Srinagar for what to do. “Srinagar is our heart. If it is finished, then we are also finished. They needn’t come here and tell us. But we are looking in their direction for guidance.”
I learnt that the police had detained Haji Asadullah Khan, the 85-year-old president of the Uri market association and the Congress block president. I met his son Abdullah, and a group of people sitting outside some closed shops and chatting. Abdullah derided the Indian media at first, but eventually began sharing details. “The police kept him at the thana for three days, but he has oxygen problem and uses a machine to breathe, so they sent him home,” he said. “The local police said there are orders from above. No arrest warrant was shown.”
One of the others in the group promptly added, “Let them do this in any other state and show us.” Abdullah did not clarify whether his father was under house arrest, and also refused to give me their address. I went to the Uri police station to verify. The police officials looked surprised, and even a little embarrassed, but refused to say anything.
Locals believe that whenever there is shelling, it acts as a diversion, allowing infiltrators to enter the region. Residents of Uri told me that for the previous week, they had heard a lot of shelling. At the village of Silikot, the last point until which civilians are allowed and which is separated from Pakistan by only a river gorge, two men from the Maratha regiment of the Rashtriya Rifles told me that there had not been any shelling from the Pakistan side. There had been some sporadic firing, which is regular, but nothing serious, they assured me. They said that I had probably heard some rumours.
ON THE WAY BACK, five kilometres before Baramulla, is a place called Veervan. There is a colony here for Kashmiri Pandits who returned to the Valley, in 2010, under the prime minister’s rehabilitation package. A hundred and fifty-four families live in 130 quarters, and most work as teachers. Two policemen were in the security cabin at the gate, and allowed us to come in. “Everybody has gone to Jammu, except for 20 families, because the schools are shut,” Suneel Pandita, one of the residents, told me. “They will come back after things become normal.”
He said that the schools were open, but they were not able to go due to lack of transport. “The biggest problem is that the phones are not working,” he told me. “Not even the landline, though the government says they are working. I have two family members who are above ninety. We can’t take them to either hospital or call for help if there is an emergency. Nobody can be informed. We are sitting here with faith in god.”
Pandita did not seem too thrilled about the scrapping of Article 370. Referring to those who have been welcoming it, he said, “Those who are well settled can say anything.” Whether Article 370 stayed or not “doesn’t matter to Kashmiri Pandits like us who are not sound financially,” he added. “Rehabilitation also hasn’t happened properly for us, so we can’t think of anything else. We don’t even have water supply—we get water from Baramulla town. Government claims are big, but at the grassroots level, it means nothing.”
He told me that he believed any industries that now came to the region would be in Jammu. Scrapping Article 370 “will affect Muslims and Hindus the same way,” he said. “Main worry is unemployment. Militancy also happened because of that. There is nothing else to do here. If the outsiders come here then there will be a crisis. If prosperity comes because of 370, it’s fine, but I don’t think it is going to happen here.”
JUST AS WE entered Baramulla, I saw an armoured CRPF vehicle blocking the bridge that connects the main road to the old town. On the right side of the road, there were a couple of big vehicles with some personnel from the police’s special-operations group milling about.
The SOG personnel had just completed a successful cordon-and-search operation, and killed a militant. The group was getting ready to have a lunch of Kashmiri wazwan. “We haven’t eaten anything since yesterday lunch,” the deputy superintendent of police who had led the encounter told me with a smile. He looked more elated than tired. Other policemen kept coming up to him, hugging and congratulating him. The DSP could not stop grinning, and kept invoking the grace of Allah. We waited until he had finished eating. Then he gave us the details of the operation.
The militant, Momin Gojri, was a local. The police received information about his presence the previous day, and cordoned off the area around 7.30 pm. There was heavy stone pelting at the site, which delayed the operation, but they finally succeeded around 5.30 am. The DSP told me it had been a joint operation of the SOG Baramulla, the CRPF and the forty-sixth battalion of the Rashtriya Rifles. “One of my men, Bilal, is dead and another, Amardeep Parihar, injured.”
He proudly said that this was the first successful encounter in the old town of Baramulla since 1997, and the first in the Valley since 5 August. Gojri was about twenty-one years old. “He was a notorious stone-pelter,” the DSP said. “Then he became OGW”—over ground worker. “OGW is more dangerous than an active militant. We had kept him under surveillance as OGW and he also realised that. He then became an active militant. It’s difficult to say whether he belonged to Hizb or Lashkar,” the DSP said, referring to the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Toiba, two militant outfits active in the region. “There were no local militants left in Baramulla since a long time.”
I asked the DSP how long Gojri had been an active militant. “Twenty-one days,” he told me. In his demeanour, I could not sense any regret that a young man with hardly any experience managed to kill one officer and severely injure another. His narrative revealed an important dimension of militancy in the valley: militants are almost manufactured out of incarcerated and tortured stone pelters. I have heard many stories of young men deciding to become militants when they can no longer take it.
When I asked the DSP if the tide of anger sweeping the Valley after the scrapping of Article 370 would lead to more militancy, he said, “If the militants react to the removal of Article 370 and 35A, then they are also like politicians who accepted the Indian Constitution.” He continued, “Militancy increasing or decreasing happens area-wise. Till 2016, militancy was really low. Then the trend shifted from north to south. But now, in the south, the crime rate is increasing and economy is going down. Every region has its own capacity to carry a movement. Maybe the trend will reverse again.” When I asked him about the fear of demographic changes in Kashmir, he said, “You are from Delhi. You will think a hundred times before settling down here. Nobody can adjust here easily, so demographic changes are not easy.”
Despite the DSP’s conviction, there is widespread insecurity in the Valley about demographic change. While the general public talked about the possibility of Sainik colonies of ex-soldiers, academics and senior journalists I spoke to mentioned “Doval’s Spain formula,” referring to the Reconquista, the fifteenth-century ouster of the Muslims from Spain, where they had been the ruling class for over eight hundred years. “Some of the RSS think tanks believe that it can be repeated in India, force Muslims to abandon their identity or purge them,” a professor told me.
The other point of reference was the Chinese province of Xinjiang, where the Han Chinese are being settled in a region where the Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority, were a majority. I heard this reference for the first time from a senior police officer in the Valley, while he was admonishing a young Kashmiri journalist. The officer attempted to use the comparison as a way to illustrate that journalism would not be able to stop what was underway. “Look at what happened in Xinjiang,” he said. “What could you guys do there?”
Everybody is worried. “I would like to understand something from you,” the father of a journalist friend told me. “Kashmiris are amanpasand”—peace loving—“and don’t really embrace extreme religious ideologies. For instance, Jamaat-e-Islami could never gain popularity or power, neither here nor in Pakistan,” he said, referring to the conservative socio-religious organisation that holds deep influence in the Valley. “How come Hindustanis fell for the extremist ideology of the RSS?”
THE NEXT STOP was Sopore, a town known for its apples and its separatism. It is also home to the second-largest fruit market in Asia. The apple season had started, but the market was deserted. Trucks were lined up as if in a factory, but there were no people to be seen. I found some drivers and cleaners sitting in a corner. “Truck people, shop owners, apple growers, all are crying,” one of them said. He added that some of the buyers came but were not able to leave, as they could not find enough stock. “I came on 3 August, going back tomorrow empty,” a truck driver from Gurdaspur, in Punjab, told me. Renting a ten-tyre truck costs Rs 1 lakh for six days, he said.
A shop owner, who said he had been sitting idle for weeks, told me, “It is time for some varieties like Razaqwari, Red Delicious and also pears. One peti”—crate—“that sold for Rs 750 last year is being sold for as low as Rs 150. Some people are throwing them away, as it is not profitable. We have no idea about the couple of trucks that have managed to leave, because we can’t call them.”
Ichpal Singh, who runs a hotel in the market, said that he had never seen such a breakdown, not even in 2016, when unrest erupted in the Valley following the death of the militant commander Burhan Wani. “Who will take care of these losses?” one resident asked. “Modi? Why do they do these things during the season?” I met a buyer named Mohammad Ilyas Khan, who had come from Poonch with a truck. “At this time usually, this market would be so full that there would no space to stand,” he said. “I need 1,300 petis to go back. It’s been four days and I haven’t been able to succeed. I will wait for ten more days and see.”
At one corner of the huge market, in the office of the buyers’ union, some veteran buyers were sitting, looking morose. “During peak season, three lakh petis used to be dispatched every day,” one of them told me. “Seventy thousand to one lakh petis are barely able to leave. Some varieties like Razaqwari have to reach its destination within 24 to 36 hours, and can’t be stored. But we have not been able to know what is the demand and from where. We have been blindly sending all the trucks that managed to leave to Delhi.”
Last year, the buyers told me, pears sold at Rs 700 per peti, but were now selling for less than two hundred rupees. The labour charges have doubled, from Rs 60 per peti to Rs 120, due to the risk involved. “In my experience, whenever they”—the Indian government—“have done anything big, it’s been during the season,” one of the younger buyers told me. “It’s deliberate, to punish us, because seventy percent of the people depend on the fruit business.”
Another common explanation was that the government chooses this time so that people are forced to come out and do their work, instead of protesting. The fruit growers conceded that though the apples of Shopian, in south Kashmir—another hotbed of militancy—are better in quality, Sopore produces greater quantities, owing to its higher altitude.
Apple orchards and business become the site of political contestation from time to time. The government suspects that some of the profits from the business fund separatism—but it will not admit this, for doing so would complicate its claim that such efforts are supported wholly by Pakistan. In mid September, the Modi government charged the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India, or NAFED, with purchasing the apple crop. But the apple growers have refused this offer, choosing instead to send their produce wherever else it could go, instead of allowing the government one more snapshot of normalcy. The government has been attempting to force the market to open, but to no avail.
THE ROAD FROM BARAMULLA TO GULMARG is picturesque, dotted with fruit-laden apple and pear orchards, rolling green hills and brooks. I could see empty apple petis piled up on the roadsides in villages. All along the way, the shops were closed, except for medical stores. There was no presence of the armed forces, except in a tiny town called Kreeri. But as we reached Tangmarg—commonly known as the gateway to Gulmarg—the landscape began to look more and more militarised. The main road was empty, and we found no vehicle except for one car until we reached Gulmarg, just before sunset.
The hill station had become a ghost town, though it continued to live up to its name—a meadow of flowers, with pink and white erigeron flowers blooming all over the hill slopes. There were some wild horses grazing the slopes. The only people we spotted was a small group taking a leisurely walk—we later learned that they were employees of the Gulmarg Development Authority—and some kids playing cricket in the distance. Only one dhaba, named Malik Restaurant, was open, because the owner had come back after four days to check if everything is fine. He said he could only offer us Maggi and chai. The owner said that he had been running the dhaba since 1996, but had never seen a situation this bad. “One person per shop have been trying to stay, but the shops are all dispersed,” he told me. “Even if one of us dies, it might take a week before the others realise.”
Another man, who runs a nearby shop, joined us. When I asked him if people were being stopped from coming to Gulmarg, he said the army porters had been sent back for 48 hours from the higher altitudes where they used to work. “The rumour is that ten to fifteen soldiers have been beheaded, including a major,” he told me, adding that there had been helicopter sorties through the night on 17 and 18 August. “We don’t know what happened,” he said. “We thought maybe a war started with Pakistan.” We left Gulmarg with more questions than answers. On the way out, two policemen stationed at the entry point of Gulmarg confirmed that the army porters had been sent back for 48 hours.
After I returned to Delhi, some of the rumours about the borders were confirmed, albeit partially. Lieutenant General KJS Dhillon and the ADGP Munir Khan addressed a press conference, on September 4, in Srinagar’s Badamibagh cantonment. Dhillon noted that there had been over three hundred and fifty operations in and around Gulmarg. “Otherwise, as you are aware, Gulmarg has been terrorism-free area, because of tourism and other things,” he said. In an interview he gave the Indian Express in mid September, he reiterated that there have been no infiltrations, though there have been many attempts. “The launchpads in PoK”—Pakistan-occupied Kashmir— “have been full,” Dhillon said. Organisations, “including LeT, JeM, Hizbul and Al Badr, frequently come to Pakistani posts. Every day, there is firing. Attempts of infiltration are also made in Poonch, Rajouri and Jammu sectors.”
I HAD HEARD A STORY while travelling in south Kashmir during the 2016 protests: the people of a village near Anantnag named a donkey after a notorious and ruthless police officer. When the police officer came to know, he shot the donkey dead. The story rings true to the image of the Kashmiri police.
But travelling in the Valley this time, it was hard not to notice a difference in the police’s standing. Policemen everywhere looked listless. Many appeared uncaring, hanging about with their shirts untucked. I saw them sitting in groups, playing cards or chitchatting. I heard that after 5 August, about sixty percent of the police personnel in the Valley had been disarmed. Though the government has denied this, it was quite evident that police officers did not have anything apart from a fibre stick.
Soon after the union home minister, Amit Shah, announced the government’s decision in Parliament, an AFP photo taken that morning began to do the rounds. In it, Shah can be seen holding a document that lists various agendas. One of the items, mentioned under the head “Law and Order,” was the “possibility of violent disobedience in sections of uniformed personnel.” Many took this to mean that the government expected the Jammu and Kashmir police to rebel, and had therefore taken away its weapons.
Over the years, the state police has been the tip of the government’s spear against militancy in the Valley. When I met the brother of a dead militant, in Anantnag, he said, “The army is doing their job, but it’s the Kashmiri police who are the real culprits who teach them what to do.” A young man from Pampore, a town known for its famed saffron, said that fatalities have been low until now in large part because the Kashmiri police do not have arms.
However, Khurram Parvez, a prominent rights activist with the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, disagreed with that view. “It’s a narrative propagated by the people of Delhi,” he told me. “Over the years we have compiled all the killings, and that is not true,” he told me. In 2016, the incarcerated separatist leader Masarat Alam prepared a list of policemen who committed excesses. The plan was to socially ostracise them. But the Hurriyat opposed this, to prevent a civil war against a hundred thousand policemen and their families.This time, though, it seemed like most of the police and the people had been pushed to the same side. Kashmiris did not fail to notice the police’s disarmament. When stopped by policemen, the locals would pull their leg, sometimes asking about their guns and, at other times, asking if they would like to join a protest rally. The pride of the Kashmiri police, especially the lower rungs, is associated with the guns it holds. Without them, the police personnel looked chastised and embarrassed, as if they had been stripped naked. People began to express a perverse sympathy for them—they, too, had become subject to the whims of the Indian state.
By disarming the police, the Indian state also vindicated Riyaz Naikoo, the current commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen. In a video released two days before Shah’s speech in Parliament, Naikoo addressed the Jammu and Kashmir police. “We would like to tell the people of Kashmir working in police that today there is an opportunity to redeem yourselves,” he said. “If you don’t understand even now, that day is not far, by the grace of god, when India will use you like a tissue paper and throw away. That day is not far when your own people will drag you out of your house and cut you into pieces.”
“This war is not just our war,” Naikoo went on. “Today you annihilate Kashmiris, tomorrow the army will annihilate your kids. … Hindustan is using you against your own people. Use your mind and decide what you should do and you shouldn’t.”
I met two senior police officers and one mid-level police officer. “There is no existential crisis among police,” one of the senior officers told me. “But the very fact that there is a discussion on it is very important. The police is listening to all these discussions about them. They do feel humiliated, yes—for instance, by the way the CRPF behaves with them while they work together and conduct joint operations.” He told me that the system had been informally overhauled. “All of us have become irrelevant. Earlier, there were various levels of escalation points for a problem to find a solution. But now there is no difference between me and an ordinary constable on the road. Everything is being decided by New Delhi. Even Doval has to get clearance or a go ahead from New Delhi if he has to do something like relax restrictions for a couple of hours.”
“People were expecting that at best they will tinker with 35A and allow women who marry outside to inherit property,” the senior officer said. “But this turned out to be an earthquake of eight magnitude.” The Intelligence Bureau, he added, “was dead against going forward with this decision. But they were snubbed.” One of the prime reasons for anger among the people, according to him, was the media. “When a cat drinks milk, it doesn’t upset you,” he told me. “But when it starts wagging its tail while drinking that milk, that will anger you.”
When I asked him if Delhi was getting the reports about the anger on the streets, the senior officer replied in the negative. He said that a chaotic time also witnesses a lot of hankering for power and one-upmanship. “We give the feedback, but by the time it goes through various filters at various levels and reaches New Delhi, it becomes all goody-goody,” he said. “Some DC”—district commissioner—“wants to become divisional commissioner, secretary wants to become chief secretary, some DIG wants to become IG and the IG wants to become the NSA and the NSA wants to become the governor. There are thick layers of self-interest and that is manipulating the facts on the ground-level situation,” he explained. Nobody wants to look bad.
“They start believing in their own propaganda,” the other senior officer said. “How else will Doval go back and claim that everything is under control and peaceful, whatever happens later?”
The mid-level officer, whom I met after the civil curfew had started, also wondered if “a narrative that things have gone bad after the NSA left the Valley will be propagated.” He mentioned that there had been talk of transfers and new postings. Referring to such rumours surrounding one senior superintendent of police in Srinagar, he said, “His subordinate is acting all powerful suddenly, maybe New Delhi has empowered him. Additional DSPs”—deputy superintendents of police—“are being brought in wherever there are not enough cases.” I asked him what his biggest criticism of the move to scrap Article 370 and put the entire Valley under a clampdown was. “The biggest criticism of this move is that there is no exit plan,” he told me.
The second senior officer was more thoughtful. “We had only dealt with a secular India so far,” he said. “Now we are trying to understand this new India.” He suggested that I read the Israeli human-rights activist Jeff Halper’s book War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification, which explains how Israel treats Palestine, and gets away with it. According to him, the tactics that Israel employs—systematic shutdowns, the use of checkpoints and roadblocks to militarise the geography and everyday life of the region—are now being used by India. Halper “talks about the concept of pacification of Palestine,” the second senior officer said. “There it is based on exclusion, which is achieved by blockades et cetera. India so far adopted inclusive pacification, but now that might change. In Kashmir, it will be a pacification of exclusion.”
I asked the first senior officer about the impact the situation might have on the militancy. “Earlier, the conflict was localised. Now it could cross the state border and go to the mainland,” he said. “Earlier, Hizbul Mujahideen was given primacy and importance and the other militant groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, used to play second fiddle. But now it will change, as there is an open invitation to everybody.” He added, “Till now, a young man who has managed to get a photo clicked with somebody else’s gun was also considered militancy. But now militancy is going to be lethal. The Kashmiris are feeling defeated.” When an entire people feels defeated, he said, “then they can go to any extent.”
ATIF HAS BEEN ON THE RUN since 5 August. Now 34 years old, he was booked for stone pelting back in 2006, when he was in college. He was jailed for 20 days in 2008. Then, in 2009, he was slapped with the PSA for the first time. Since then, he has been picked up for preventive detention many times.
Atif got married in 2010, and has a child. “I have hardly been able to spend time with my son,” he said. He told me he had stopped stone pelting long ago. When I asked why, he said, with a smile, “This is no age for stone pelting.” He was sporting a paunch, so I believed him.
I asked Atif why there had not been massive protests this time around. The mainstream parties, the People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference, “had no social acceptance,” he said. “So people don’t want to come out on the streets for them. Geelani also didn’t give any statement. So people are confused. People are right if they are not doing anything. There are so many forces, there is no space for mass agitation. The phones are also blocked. If the protests are not seen by the world community, then what is the point?”
“The only answer to oppression is resistance,” Atif said. “South Kashmir has been in this for a while now and there is some fatigue. According to one report, a thousand OGWs have been detained. But the resistance will start sooner than later. All they need is a trigger and things will explode.”
Atif said he thought the shops should reopen. “The labourers from outside are suffering now. They become soft targets, though they would never come and buy land in Gulmarg. I am azadipasand”—freedom-loving—“so I don’t like to see other people suffer.” He believes that if the mainstream leaders had been able to act, there would have been ugly communal games. “You wait till these mainstream leaders get out,” he told me. “Mandirs will be torched. Azadipasand people will never do that. They might torch the DC’s office, which is symbolic of the oppressive state.”
Atif told me he had met many militants and separatist leaders in the various jails he was held in. Before 2010, he told me, he would only meet militants from north Kashmir in jails, but after that, he met militants only from south Kashmir. “Recruitment is not a problem at all here, getting weapons is,” he said, before adding, “The police are also surprised that Riyaz Naikoo manages to get guns. He hasn’t become a militant to get killed, but to do something more durable.”
Probably owing to its narrow streets, Anantnag felt more militarised than Srinagar. The shops were shut, and the roads were completely deserted. Though there were no barriers during the day, they came up at night. The town was poorly lit. At night, the security personnel lining the streets were visible only when the headlights of our car fell on them, making them look like they had appeared out of nowhere.
The intense presence of the forces is telling of how the government views these areas. “People of our age are looking for a sign from Pakistan; younger people are simply waiting for guns,” a middle-aged man from Anantnag told me. “They know picking up guns is better than pelting stones, because if you get caught pelting stones the laws are very harsh. They are just waiting for Riyaz Naikoo’s audio clip once the internet opens up.” He gave me a Kashmiri metaphor to explain the situation: “The samovar made of tin gets hot quickly and becomes cold equally fast. A copper samovar takes time to heat up, but stays hot for a long time.”
To Kashmiris such as Atif, India looms large as a big country that is morally inferior, because it uses violence and force to control Kashmir. Despite its power, they think they must fight it. There is a mix of fatalism and nihilism in their defiance. Now, these emotions are compounded by fear, making the militancy appear acceptable in every corner of the Valley. In 2016, too, the militancy had become a viable form of resistance in many Kashmiris’ eyes. But today, they see it as the only way forward. They have begun to think of the militancy as the only way to counter the threat of demographic changes. They “think nobody will come here because it’s far away and close to the border,” a young man I met in Bandipore said. “Ek colony mein dhamaka hoga to kaun ayega? Sab bhaag jayenge”—If there is a blast in one colony, who will come? “They have a lot of hope on militants.”
NOT FAR FROM ANANTNAG, in Kulgam district, lies the village of Rampora, also called Shuhadapur—the village of martyrs—by locals. Its most well-known inhabitants are the Sheikh family. Since the 1990s, when the militancy first intensified in Kashmir, more than twenty of the family’s men have joined the militancy and lost their lives.
One member, Muhammad Abbas Sheikh, is still active. Abbas quit the militancy, in 2005, and become a tailor. Indian security forces first jailed him for a year in 2004, then picked him up again in 2007, this time for three years. In 2013, there was a raid on his home. Abbas did not want to go back to jail, so he fled. He was shot, and lost functionality in his hand. Now 43 years old, Abbas does tactical work and planning for his militant outfit. His wife was away when we visited their home. But I met Shahnaza Bano, another woman living in the house.
Bano was married to the first militant of the Sheikh family, Ibrahim Sheikh, who was killed in the 1990s. She married his brother, Ashraf Sheikh, in 2002. He too became a militant, in 2009, but was gunned down within forty days. Her son Salman is 19 years old now. “We have been suffering for the past thirty years, but seeing my son grow made us forget everything,” Bano told me. “He really wanted to study. We had high hopes that he will do well and take care of the family.” His school textbooks were piled up in a corner of the room we were sitting in.
Salman, Bano said, was picked up by security forces and sent to the Kathua jail, in August 2018, just before his twelfth-standard exams. “I told them I wouldn’t let him become a militant, but they didn’t listen,” she told me. Bano approached the courts, and secured permission for Salman to finish his exams. However, the security forces had twice stopped him from appearing in all his exams, causing him to fail.
Salman’s detention under the PSA was extended twice in one year. “He wanted to help the family get out of poverty,” Bano told me, with tears in her eyes. “He used to study and work at the same time. He had started a nursery for some income.” When she first visited him in jail, Bano said Salman “was telling me about how to take care of the plants in the nursery.”
We met Abbas Sheikh’s sister Nasima on the way out of the neighbourhood. Her 21-year-old son Tauseef was killed last year in an encounter. When he was caught in a cordon-and-search operation, he called Nasima a final time. He asked her not to be sad, and to pray for him. “If somebody beats you, you become strong,” Nasima told me. “We don’t regret losing so many people from our family. We have faith in god. He will do justice.”
Most of the stories of the militants from the Sheikh’s family are similar—not everyone became a militant out of bravery or their own volition; many felt pushed into it. When Tauseef was an active militant, four of his cousins were sent to jail because they were related to him. Their accounts show that detention and torture have rarely worked as a deterrent in the Valley. The capture and killing of militants have been so incentivised with prize money and promotions that it is hard to tell whether these are genuine.
I had wanted to ask the stoic Sheikh women about Article 370, but it was clear that it was not even a blip in their lives. Theirs is a world away from the politics of Srinagar and Delhi. As we walked towards the car and drove out of the village, a group of teenagers had gathered, staring at us. I wondered how many of them would still be in Shuhadapur the next time I visited.
THE KHANABAL GOVERNMENT HOUSING COLONY, in Anantnag, is a high-security locality, with offices of several political parties and their workers. Even a couple of former members of the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen—a state-sponsored group of renegade militants, which helped the Indian government break the backbone of the militancy—live on the premises.
At the house of a senior journalist who resides here, I met two Bharatiya Janata Party leaders. Both said that Kashmiris were angrier this time than in 2016. Though the people are afraid as well, they said, things will slowly get better. I asked them what they thought about the scrapping of Article 370. “Common people are happy that the khandan raj”—family rule—“is gone,” Rafiq Wani, the BJP’s district president, told me. “It benefited only the political dynasties, and not the common people. We are primarily against the khandaan raj.”
Weren’t the mainstream political families and their leaders pro-India, I asked. “They were pro-India because their vote bank was safe with 370,” Mohammad Maqbool Ganai, the district general secretary of the BJP, said. “They were half-Indians, and they were never secular. If they wanted 370 so much then they should’ve come together and asked India to make it permanent, instead of choosing militancy. Many of our youth wouldn’t have lost their lives.”
The BJP leaders continued to attack the Abdullahs and the Muftis, and had no answers when I mentioned other politicians. “We thank the government for arresting these half-Indian people,” Ganai said. “If there are anybody left, they should also be put behind bars, and young people should be given a chance.”
According to Ganai, mainstream parties employed Article 370 to activate militants as much as the Hurriyat did under the banner of separatism. This claim is hard to reconcile with the historical record: militants killed many mainstream political leaders and workers over the years, and the parties responded with brutal force. For instance, it was under the rule of the People’s Democratic Party, which is seen outside the Valley as a soft-separatist party, that a large number of militants were killed. When I asked the about the fear among Kashmiris that they would lose their land, Ganai said he welcomed industries in his village. “Even if we don’t get proper jobs, at least the villagers can work as labourers,” he said. I mentioned that the youth might have to compete with outsiders for jobs. That, he finally accepted, would be a loss.
A businessman who was in the room could not hold back any longer. “It is a huge loss; all the good businessmen wanted to invest in Jammu and Kashmir,” he said. “Things were coming back on track. Now, it’s difficult to even step out. They didn’t have to do it at this time.” A member of the state’s chamber of commerce, who was sitting next to him, added that this was a very sensitive issue. “When they say that the Valley is backward, it boils my blood,” he said. “If they want to bring development, then they should have developed Bihar.” Referring to the senior National Conference leader and former state legislator Abdul Qadir Bhat Pathan, who was also in the room, the businessman said, “People like Pathan saab taught us how to love Hindustan. But this is an attack on our existence … In a few days nobody will be able to take the name of the BJP and RSS here.”
This elicited a reaction from Wani. “This is a threat,” he said. “This is the language of Pakistan.” He had one last point to make. “In ten districts, no taluq headquarters had flag hoisting this time, except in Anantnag, where I managed to do it,” he proudly told me, adding that there was a BJP directive for this. I asked him what happened in the other nine districts. “Wait till next year and see,” he said.
Finally, Pathan began to speak. “Every year we used to hoist tricolour at Pahalgam tehsil,” the 74-year-old said. “This year nobody asked, we didn’t go.” The Kashmiri people, he said, “made an agreement with a country whose pride was Gandhi, not with the toofan”—storm—“who rules today.” Muslims who had migrated to Pakistan during Partition were still pejoratively being called muhajirs today, he added. “We are not Pakistani, we are Hindustanis. But look at people like Farooq Abdullah. Hurriyat abuses him and your country is also after him. What kind of justice is this? What relationship can be built on this? It will break away.”
Pathan called himself a “pure Hindustani.” “I contested the 1996 elections, which was akin to giving an invitation to death itself,” he said. That year, Kashmir went to polls for the first time after the outbreak of militancy. “I was 14 when I entered politics,” Pathan said. “Today I am 74. Today I don’t even have security—I used to have five people. Why are they punishing us? Anybody can kill me on the road today. They don’t need a gun for that; a small stone is enough.”
He did not stop at that. “Amit Shah says militancy will end,” Pathan told me. “Militancy will grow, it will grow 100 percent. Today’s kids, they embrace death. They throw stones at the armed forces and know they will get bullets in return.”
According to Pathan, Article 370 could have been removed differently, by taking the mainstream leadership into confidence. “They imposed curfew, there are forces everywhere, our leaders are under arrest,” he said. “This is not love; this is something else. When Sheikh Abdullah was arrested, in 1953, other people kept ruling, the articles were diluted. But nothing happened. Why is it happening now?”
It had been two weeks since the clampdown began. “People are sitting at home for 15 days, suffering from hunger,” Pathan said. “I couldn’t even find medicine. I swear on Allah, I have had no medicine for four days. I will show you.” He took out a small blue empty vial of insulin. “It was not available anywhere in Anantnag district,” he said. “What will I praise this country for?”
“If Sheikh saab had picked up guns, there would’ve been a lot of destruction here,” Pathan said. He added that in 1965, when infiltrators from Pakistan entered Kashmir, Kashmiri people arrested them and handed them over to the security forces. “Who paid Rs 6 crore to bring the PDP into the arena in 2002?” he said, referring to the common perception that the PDP is a creation of Indian state. “Yahan kisiko bhool hai ki is qaum ko daba liya hai”—Some people here have the wrong impression that they have silenced this community, he added. “There is a lava building here. It will explode like a bomb one day.”
As we stepped out of the housing colony, we met Ghulam Nabi Malik, the state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “This is BJP’s agenda, not national agenda,” he said about the removal of Article 370. “We taught secularism to India. Today they are saying Kashmiris are fundamentalists. This is all due to the RSS. … It is the beginning of Hindu Rashtra. It happened in Pakistan in 1947. It’s happening in India today.”
THE DISTANCE BETWEEN the villages of Buchroo and Tarigam, in Kulgam district, is barely two kilometres. But the perverse journey of Indian democracy in the Valley can be traversed in that small distance. In the rigged assembly elections of 1987, the Muslim United Front, a coalition of various organisations, managed to win four seats, one of which was Kulgam. Abdul Razzaq Mir, a businessman and philanthropist from Buchroo, won the seat on a Jamaat-e-Islami ticket.
The centre had rigged the elections in favour of the National Conference, to prevent the MUF from securing a foothold. But in Kulgam, the National Conference’s Ghulam Nabi Dar came second. Even after the other MUF members, including Geelani, resigned to protest the rigging, the Jamaat allowed Mir to continue as a legislator. The assembly was suspended after the militancy erupted, in 1989, and the state was put under president’s rule.
By the time the next elections were held, in 1996, under unprecedented security, much had changed. In the run up to the elections, the Ikhwan picked up Mir in broad daylight and killed him. “Ikhwanis came in a minibus and picked him up from our shop. I had seen five army men in their vehicle,” his son, Nisar Ahmad Mir, who was 30 years old at the time, told me. “First they took him to the army camp, and then he was taken to Laroo village, five kilometres away, and shot there. Shabbir Laali, the youngest of the Ikhwan, shot him, around 1 pm. The army had cordoned off all routes to the village. We couldn’t even reach.”
It was in this Jamaat stronghold that Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami managed to win his first election on a CPI(M) ticket, after losing two elections in 1983 and 1987. People remember how, in those days, the Rashtriya Rifles camp was located close to Tarigami’s village, in Parigam, and that he had very good relations with Brigadier Ahlawat, who headed the camp. A resident of the village told me that it was speculated that Tarigami was behind Mir’s assassination, “as he was the only hurdle for him in the constituency. Tarigami had got very few votes in 1987.”
In Tarigam, I met 72-year-old Abdul Rashid Bhat, who was Mir’s friend and election agent. “Brigadier Ahlawat came with five of his men and the media, pointed the gun at me and asked, ‘Who killed Abdul Razzak Mir?’” Bhat told me. “I said, ‘Ikhwan,’ to which he said, ‘Then why are you taking the army’s name?’ I told him, ‘It’s because I saw five army people giving the Ikhawanis protection.’”
Bhat’s daughter was shot in the leg when Mir was being taken away. When Ghulam Nabi Dar, the NC politician from Kulgam, died in a landmine explosion, in July 2006, there were whispers again about Tarigami. Since Mir’s death, “there has been terror, and there has been no opposition to Tarigami,” one of the villagers told me. After 1996, Tarigami won three consecutive elections, and was an incumbent legislator when Jammu and Kashmir was put under president’s rule, in June 2018.
I asked Ghulam Nabi Malik, the CPI(M) state secretary, about the allegations against Tarigami. “Jamaat-e-Islami has campaigned against us in every election we fought,” Malik told me. “We wrote an open letter to Geelani asking for proof. Okay, let’s agree that we won the 1996 elections because of some help. But not later.” I asked him about a common charge in Kashmir against Tarigami, that he uses the security forces to get people—especially the youth—arrested, and then gets them released to win their support. “All those who became public representatives had to face these allegations,” he said. I asked him to name some others who face similar charges. He named GA Mir, the president of the Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee.
There is indeed a class of politicians in the Valley who are known for their close links with the army and intelligence agencies, such as Hakim Yasin—the head of the People’s Democratic Front—and Ghulam Hassan Mir. Hassan Mir, who co-founded the PDP, spoke to me in 2015. He told me freely that the central government orchestrated his election to the state assembly several times.
The previous year, Hassan Mir had been embroiled in a controversy after the Indian Express reported that General VK Singh, now the minister of state for roads and transport in the Modi government, paid him Rs 1.19 crore to bring down Omar Abdullah’s government. The government then ensured that he lost in the 2014 elections. Hassan Mir insisted to me that he understood why his loss was necessary. “They are not letting me down,” he said. “It was a policy to show the fairness of elections. Whatever happens in the rest of the country is different from what happens here. Whatever the courts say, your channels say, the politics here is different. And that is needed.”
Tarigami, too, had to pay the price for this perceived closeness to the army and the establishment. Militants killed three of his family members—his brother, his father-in-law and his nephew—over the years. Because of this, though he is only a state legislator, he was allotted a residence on the highly fortified Gupkar Road, where chief ministers and those from security and intelligence agencies reside.
I went to his home in Tarigam. Though the barbed wire was still intact on the high walls of the house, the security cabin was empty. Fifteen security personnel—first from the Border Security Force, then from the state armed police—had been guarding Tarigami’s house since 1996. The most recent attack on the house by militants occurred in 2018.
According to the family members, the security personnel left on the night of 4 August. “What do we do now?” Mohammad Abbas, one of Tarigami’s nephews, asked me. “We could be attacked anytime. We have to fight the situation. Who do we share the fear with? The sword that is hanging above us is sharp on both sides. If the militants come here and even if they get killed by chance, there is a possibility of two charges: one, that we got them killed; two, that we were giving them sanctuary.” Another family member, who did not want to be named, said that the government had “integrated Kashmir with India, but it is only on paper. It is disintegration, not integration. At least some people were with India here because it was a secular India, but now it’s a communal India, Modi’s India.”
As we were leaving, we met Javed Ahmad, another of Tarigami’s nephews, at the gate. He is with the police and works as part of Tarigami’s security team. “Tarigami has a pacemaker, that’s why they kept him under house arrest,” Ahmad told me. “He had requested for a doctor to be sent from SKIMS, and the DGP said they will, but they didn’t send him.” Lamenting the treatment, he said, “We have suffered two decades of militancy, but they still don’t trust us.”
Despite what went into building him up for his role in the Valley, Tarigami was put under house arrest on 5 August. The CPI(M) general secretary, Sitaram Yechury, attempted to visit him once, but was sent back from the airport. Yechury then obtained a Supreme Court order and, in late August, arrived in Kashmir. On 17 September, Tarigami became the first Kashmiri politician to address a press conference in Delhi, at his party headquarters. “When I see that the very foundations of the unity of people of Jammu and Kashmir with the union of India are getting assaulted by those who are mandated to protect those very foundations of the Constitution, it’s a big surprise for me—rather, I feel shocked about it,” he said. “No consultation, no discussion, no debate … Take us along.”
Tarigami recalled a meeting with Modi during the protests of 2016, when he had said that things were pretty bad, but it was not the responsibility of the army “as this is not their doing. They didn’t disturb the peace. Don’t put burden on their shoulders. The conditions are bad as a result of… we politicians.” Responding to a question about narratives of normalcy, Tarigami said, “They say one thing constantly: did somebody die? Yes, they are, slowly, dying slowly.”
IT WOULD BE ABSURD for Kashmiris to believe that Tarigami was detained because the government worried he would mobilise people against the very system that built him, equipped him, protected him and gave him power. To the people in the Valley, politicians like him epitomise the immoral façade of the Indian democratic apparatus.
A few people I met theorised that Usman Majeed, a former Ikhwan commander who is now a Congress legislator from Bandipore, volunteered to be put under house arrest. “Why would India detain him otherwise?” a resident of Bandipore said, indicating that if Majeed had not done so, his allegiances would be clear for all to see. In Bandipore, a local journalist told me that Majeed helped the youth facing cases for stone pelting. “In the last election, he got a lot of votes from the locality known for stone pelting,” the journalist said.
I wanted to meet Imtiyaz Ahmad Parray, the son of Kuka Parray—the top Ikhwan commander, who became a politician and was, in 2003, killed by the Hizbul Mujahideen. Imtiyaz merged his father’s party with the Congress, and is currently a municipal councillor in his hometown, Hajin, in north Kashmir. He is now a Congress party worker. When I arrived at his residence, a BSF jawan opened the huge iron gate.
Imtiyaz was not at home. I met his elder brother Khurshid Parray, who was playing volleyball with the BSF personnel stationed within the compound. Khurshid said that about thirty or thirty-five security personnel were usually stationed at the house, but that this number shot up to eighty after 5 August. He felt that his father would have approved of the decision to scrap Article 370. “He had been a true Indian all through his life,” Khurshid told me. “He would have had no problem with it.”
According to Khurshid, the Muftis and Abdullahs benefitted from Article 370, as they kept all the central funds for themselves. “My father had brought back Kashmir from the clutches of Pakistan and gifted it back to India in 1996,” he told me. “Doval saab played an important role in recruiting and supporting my father.” But he lamented that their family does not get enough support now. “My father, who was the biggest patriot in Kashmir, lost the elections in 2002, as he didn’t have the central support,” he said. “Moma Khanna”—another Ikhwani—“got Padma Shri because Farooq Abdullah supported him. But my father, who played a bigger role, got no recognition.” We sat in the garden, next to his father’s grave. As the face of Ikhwan, Kuka Parray was reviled enough to be refused land in the village graveyard—the ultimate insult in Kashmir.
When I asked Khurshid about the impact of the abrogation of Article 370, he said, “People are against this decision. Some are happy, but they don’t speak for the fear of militants. If I talk about Hajin, people here think the rest is all fine, but we shouldn’t let land slip out of our hands.” As I was leaving, he gave me the name of the hotel in Srinagar where Imitiyaz was staying.
Located on a main road in the Dalgate area, the hotel had no bright lights, nor a signboard. The security enclosure stuck out higher than the wall, lending it an air of mystery. I went in and asked for Imtiyaz. After a few questions about my identity, the CRPF men on duty showed me a register. It contained a list of the people staying there, with room numbers and the political party they belonged to. The list was huge—I realised it was a government safe house for politicians, and that many such accommodations must exist in Srinagar. At a time when all prominent politicians were either under arrest or detained, the government was providing sanctuary to many small-time, lesser-known leaders.
One of the men staying there was Abdul Rashid Bhat, a sarpanch from Budgam, in central Kashmir. When I asked him about how he ended up there, he said, “My father had worked along with the Indian army and I followed his footsteps. Humne unka namak khaya”—We have eaten out of their hands. “I have had some very good times in life, thanks to the army,” he told me, as if expecting praise. When asked if he was part of the Ikhwan, he smiled and said, “Something like that.” I then asked him whether he was a member of the BJP. “Not directly,” he said, still smiling. “We don’t claim to be directly linked to them. Officially we are with the Panchayat Conference.”
He was referring to the All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference. Panchayat elections were held in the state in December 2018. The PDP and the NC boycotted the polls. Since winning the elections, Bhat has been living in the Srinagar hotel because it is dangerous for him to stay in his village—the militants had warned of dire consequences. “Now, with the removal of Article 370, it has become even more difficult,” he said. He tried to flaunt his familiarity with Rajnath Singh and VK Singh. “VK Singh still has good networks of people in Pulwama that he had cultivated during his army days,” he told me. “Some of us went to campaign for him during the elections.”
Bhat was part of the delegation of sarpanches that came to Delhi to meet Amit Shah in the first week of September. The government showcased the visit to back its narrative that the removal of Article 370 has supporters in the Valley. “We were very happy when the panchayat elections were held,” a sarpanch told the Indian Express. “The stranglehold of the entrenched families had been broken. Democracy was reaching the grassroots. But after abrogation of Article 370, we are hiding from the same people who elected us. We have been delegitimised in one stroke. People are calling us gaddar”—traitors. “We are being seen as stooges of Delhi, just as the Muftis and Abdullahs.” Jitendra Singh, the minister of state for the prime minister’s office and a member of parliament from Jammu, stressed after the meeting that a new leadership without any political dynasties was emerging at the grassroots level, and that it would benefit Kashmir.
In the run-up to the panchayat elections, the members of the AJKPC criticised the mainstream parties for their dynastic politics—one of the favourite themes of Modi and his government. At the same time, the AJKPC tried to project itself as an apolitical outfit, but in vain. “I also want to inform militants that we are not part of a political structure in any way, and are just a rural-development institution,” the party president, Shafiq Mir, said.
After the elections, the winning members had a meeting with Modi, in Delhi, at which Doval was also present. In June this year, while tabling the bill for extension of president’s rule in Jammu and Kashmir, Amit Shah said that the government had released Rs 3,700 crore for the panchayats. Bhat told me he had received a grant of Rs 27 lakh at first, and then Rs 10 lakh more. “Panchayats have never been so important in Kashmir before,” he told me.
A senior police officer in the Valley told me that empowering panchayats was part of the Modi government’s plan for Kashmir. MLAs and MPs would become irrelevant in the future, he said, as the centre would directly deal with the panchayat leaders. It seems some of these members are being groomed for important roles.
One name doing the rounds is that of Mir Junaid, the former president of the National Students’ Union of India, the Congress’s student wing, in Kashmir University. Junaid is a sarpanch from Langate in Kupwara district. There were whispers that he had been allotted a high-profile residence near the Chashme Shahi garden in Srinagar, but I was unable to confirm this. Junaid regularly appears on television channels to defend the government moves in the Valley, and is frequently seen in the North Block of the central secretariat. Before this, he was only known for having physically assaulted a waiter at the university canteen, in December 2013.
On 9 September, the government allowed a small, unknown political outfit with a rather unoriginal name, the Jammu and Kashmir Political Movement (India), to hold a press conference at the media centre in Srinagar. The government set up the centre in the wake of the communications clampdown, ostensibly to allow journalists access to the internet. The head of the party, Shahid Khan, claimed to be a journalist himself. He did not say anything about Article 370, except that he wanted to look at a “post-370 solution.” The mainstream political leaders “have been the reason for every problem that J&K faces today,” he said. The statement the party released urged that the centre “should provide guarantees as in other States on land and restore social security among people. No hazardous industry should be set up in J&K’s fragile ecology.” Mushtaq Ahmad Tantray, a former Ikhwani and Congress leader, was also part of the team—a sure sign to Kashmiris that the central government is propping up the outfit.
TWO THOUSAND KILOMETERS AWAY from Kashmir, Modi gave a speech about his vision for the Valley. Speaking at a rally in Nashik, on 19 September, the prime minister asked an audience of Marathi people whether they were pleased with his decision on Kashmir. The crowd responded weakly, but in the affirmative. “Earlier,” Modi said, “Hindustanis would say, ‘Kashmir humara hai’”—Kashmir is ours. “Now Hindustanis will say, ‘Naya Kashmir banana hai’”—We have to build a new Kashmir.
Despite this talk, the worst of the old system continues to receive active support. The credentials required to be politicians and administrators in Naya Kashmir seem to be nothing but a blind willingness to toe the centre’s line. For the Indian state, their credibility in the eyes of the people did not matter, as long as they were willing to carry out its orders. This has not changed.
The Khan brothers—Baseer Ahmed Khan, the divisional commissioner of Kashmir, and Munir Ahmed Khan, the additional director general of police—are running the show right now in the Valley, acting as Delhi’s loyal eyes and ears. Their path to government service is marked by allegations of nepotism. Their father, Nazir Ahmed Khan, was the chairman of the Kashmir Public Service Commission, between 1977 and 1982. During the fag end of his tenure, both brothers were shortlisted for appointment. Those left off the list later approached the high court, accusing the commission of manipulation, saying that many undeserving candidates had been admitted. But the court was unable to verify this charge, as the state service-commission office said that the relevant files had been lost in an accidental fire. Protests erupted, and the court case dragged on for almost two years before it was dropped. The Khan brothers joined the state service. Baseer and Munir were inducted into the central public services—in the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service, in 2001 and 2011, respectively.
In 2013, Baseer, who had by then served as district commissioner at various places, was arrested on the charges of illegal transfer of land in Gulmarg to many businessmen. He was released on bail. The high court ordered the state government to not give him any important postings, and he was removed from his post as the district collector for Srinagar. In 2016, though the case was still pending, Mehbooba Mufti, then the chief minister, gave Baseer the all-powerful post of divisional commissioner.
Meanwhile, Munir Khan, who became famous for his excesses in the anti-militancy operations of the 1990s, had become a top-level police officer, amassing enough power to influence his brother’s case. In July this year, a senior official of the government accused Munir’s wife of grabbing evacuee land in Srinagar’s posh Gupkar neighbourhood, but later retracted his claim. The common perception is this happened under pressure from the administration. The Khan brothers were coming up for retirement this year. But in July, the department of personnel and training, which gave permission to the state vigilance department to prosecute him in the land-transfer scam, also gave Baseer an extension of one year, “in public interest.” Munir also received an extension. “J&K bureaucrat accused in land scam gets 1-year extension,” read one newspaper headline.
Javed Iqbal Shah, Mehbooba Mufti’s estranged husband, who is an admirer of Narendra Modi but does not support the removal of Article 370, has been decrying the sorts of people that the centre has chosen to administer Kashmir. “Show me one IAS officer in the entire country who has been charge-sheeted and sent to jail getting an extension when the case is still ongoing,” he said. “The order says he is getting an extension in national interest. Are we presuming his innocence even as his brother is diluting the case?” About Munir, he said, “Yes, he carried out anti-militancy operations. But for every one true encounter or operation the notorious special task force would carry out, they carried out ten extortions. They had the agenda of extortion, kidnapping and torture; secret funds were all siphoned off. Innocent people were wrongly booked and let off after extortion.”
He also mentioned the case of Farooq Khan, a former police officer who joined the BJP in 2014, and was appointed the governor of Lakshadweep. Farooq is currently the advisor to the governor of Jammu and Kashmir, and is tipped to be the lieutenant governor when the state is officially notified as a union territory. He was suspended for two years on suspicions of being involved in the Pathribal fake-encounter cases of 2000, when Indian forces killed five Gujjars to cover up for the Chhattisinghpora massacre, in which 36 Sikhs had been killed.
Farooq was later cleared of all charges and reinstated, but many believe him to be guilty. “The state is under the mistaken notion that Kashmiris can’t be trusted,” Iqbal Shah said. “Whatever these chosen people do will pass because they are loyal. Rules, laws, integrity nothing applies to them. Blackened faces and soiled hands will not help the Indian state.” By empowering these people, “we are setting a wrong precedent and sending out a wrong signal to the people,” he told me. “When you talk of creating a new Kashmir, then perform a surgery, remove all these tainted people … We can’t make heroes out of them.” He offered a diagnosis: “You know what is ailing Kashmir? You don’t have a yardstick for Kashmir. You are promoting the wrong kind who is in the garb of a nationalist. They are mere mercenaries wearing the cloak of nationalism. Anybody who is the enemy of Kashmiri people becomes the protégé of Delhi.”
It is said that Doval is taking these decisions, as he is evidently managing Kashmir right now. Back in 2010, in a lecture he delivered at Hyderabad, he talked about all that was wrong with the Indian state’s approach in Kashmir. “Article 370 is a product of a mindset, a mindset of appeasement,” he said. “Why 370 for them, but not for 550 other states which merged with India? Why one constitution for India and Kashmir has a separate constitution?” He criticised the mainstream political parties and leaders, saying “they are not going to provide you any comfort.” When there was “civil disobedience” in Kashmir, he said, none of the political parties “came to Lal Chowk and said, ‘We are integral part of India and we are going to take a counter procession.’”
Doval continued, “The political parties which have enjoyed the power, where is their mass base? Where are their cadres? ... In the autonomy what do they want? The empowerment of these people who had enjoyed power. ‘Let us get freedom from Supreme Court so that if we loot and scoot, nobody can ask us … give us the money and forget about it, don’t ask us.’”
The same line of thought is now being spouted by right-wing thinkers. “Another motivation,” apart from a security mindset behind scrapping Article 370, “is to trigger a more regular process of politics and political mobilisation in the Valley,” Ashok Malik, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, which is known to be close to the establishment, recently wrote. Until July, Malik was a press secretary to the President. “This has previously not been fostered and in fact been hindered by the traditional political leadership. Rather, this leadership has benefited by presenting itself as a shifty and shifting bridge between the separatists and the Indian state.” This point of view ignores the limitations of mainstream politics in the Valley. Kashmiris across the political spectrum agree that these politicians largely spoke for the idea of India.
It appears that the Modi government is replacing this class of leaders with a more virulent form of pro-India politicians. Instead of a political solution, Doval’s police paradigm is bringing back the worst of the Indian state’s legacy in Kashmir. In doing so, the Modi government has laid the ground for a possible reversal to the 1990s, when militancy was at its peak.
Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Javed Iqbal Shah supports the Indian government’s move to remove Kashmir’s special status, enshrined in Article 370 of the Constitution. The Caravan regrets the error.